Oftentimes, events in my own life mirror issues that happen with marriage and sexual intimacy. Last week, I talked about rape culture and the story of Esther on my blog and got some strong challenges in the comments.
But I’ve also engaged in Facebook conversations recently that included people challenging one another about information, healthcare, politics, etc. And I even privately messaged someone to ask them to reconsider the harshness of the memes they’re sharing. So I’ve been a challenger too.
All of this has made me think about how we respond when challenged. Most of us have a negative, visceral reaction to someone getting up in our grill, but what then? What if the person challenging us is our pastor? The marriage counselor? A well-meaning friend? Or our spouse?
Our Natural Response
Threats being a regular part of life, our bodies are well-equipped to deal with danger. You may have heard of the body’s reaction referred to as the stress response.
Imagine that you’re in the woods and a large, angry bear starts running toward you. That event would certainly trigger a stress response. Your pulse would quicken, the stress hormone cortisol would spike, blood would flow away from your extremities to your major organs, and you’d experience a burst of adrenaline. Your sight, hearing, and other senses would sharpen, and your lungs would take in more oxygen with deeper breathing. You don’t make any of that happen—it’s what your body automatically does.
In that state, you’re then faced with three typical reactions: flight, fight, or freeze. So when the bear is coming right at you, you either take off running (good choice); stand your ground and fight (good luck); or become paralyzed by fear (goodbye).
First, the bad news: We’ve learned that our brains don’t distinguish between the physical threat of a charging bear and the psychosocial threat of relational conflict. Both are calculated as threats that evoke a physiological stress response, as well as the flight-fight-freeze reactions.
The good news: We’re not bears but humans who, knowing our tendencies, can put ourselves on a healthier path. In fact, that’s what we often do with our training and socialization of children—teach them how to process what’s a threat and what isn’t, how to get help or self-soothe when needed, and how to respond properly in the face of various challenges.
But none of us does this perfectly. Most of us have a lot yet to learn or put into practice.
All of those natural responses happen in the face of a perceived threat. But is a personal challenge to what you think, say, or do a threat? Well, here are Merriam-Webster’s top definitions for challenge:
1 : to dispute especially as being unjust, invalid, or outmodedDefinition of Challenge by Merriam-Webster
2 a: to confront or defy boldly
b: to call out to duel or combat
c: to invite into competition
Words like dispute, confront, defy, duel, combat, and competition certainly sound threatening to one’s relationship. And again, you don’t have to be called to duel like Alexander Hamilton; your brain and body process a verbal challenge similarly to a physical challenge.
With that in mind, you can see why one might react strongly when something like these challenges happen:
- A counselor suggests the lack of sex in your marriage is partly your fault.
- A pastor preaches that sex outside marriage is sinful.
- A marriage blogger asserts a particular sex act is or isn’t off-limits, even in marriage.
- A fellow Christian questions your faith due to different views on a passage or topic in Scripture.
- A spouse says you want sex too much or too little or too X or too Y.
You probably don’t have to go back much in your own memory to come up with an instance where you felt challenged by someone about or within your marriage. Maybe you can remember your body’s stress response as well—how tense you became and how quickly it happened.
Most people have heard about our tendency to respond to a threat with the fight-or-flight response. As explained before, we believed the two primary ways people dealt with danger was fighting or fleeing.
In a sense, these two approaches are captured in The Gottman Institute’s “Four Horseman”—four communication styles identified as predictors of a relationship end. Responding to a challenge with criticism and contempt are ways of fighting back, while defensiveness and stonewalling are ways of fleeing the conflict.
In recent years, a third response was added: freeze. It’s a fairly common in the face of a threat to feel almost paralyzed, shut down, and even dissociate from what’s happening. (By the way, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why is a great study in all these responses, especially the freeze one.)
Other reactions have been proposed by psychologists, including that women are more given to “tend and befriend” during a crisis and the combination of oxytocin and testosterone can cause men to “tend and defend.” But in both of those cases, befriending and defending could still cause us to hunker down with others who are like us and avoid the challengers.
A Biblical Response
Raise your hand if you also think this is one of the most difficult commands in the Bible:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.Matthew 5:38-40 (NKJV )
Wait—what? That’s the complete opposite of our body’s natural reaction to being challenged! Why is God’s design of our brain so different from what Jesus tells us to do?
I don’t have the answer to that. But I do believe that the underlying principle here is clear: Resist your tendency to escalate the situation and show extravagant love.
This does not mean we cannot defend ourselves. Prophets, apostles, and Jesus Himself all defended themselves when appropriate. But they also followed this maxim:
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.Romans 12:18 (ESV) (emphasis added)
Whatever form a relational challenge looks like, we have a calling to respond with the aim of peace. If it all falls apart, it shouldn’t be because you blew it—but because it wasn’t possible.
If you are in an abusive marriage, flight is an appropriate response. Many other passages in the Bible make it clear that you are not called to “turn the other cheek” to an abuser. That is not a situation where you can have peace based on your actions. Rather, prioritize caring for yourself and any children with you.
Putting It into Practice
I admit it: I still get rattled by a challenge from a commenter at times. I feel tense or upset. I’m tempted to lash back or provide a long defense. I find myself coming up with whataboutisms I could use. I want to tell a few select commenters to just go away and bother someone else.
What I have learned about responding to commenters is something I should apply far better in my own marriage. It’s not good to respond when my thoughts are racing or my emotions flaring. If I must respond, I can calmly suggest a commenter take things down a notch, reiterate my main points, and promise to come back later with more specifics.
Then I can step away, try looking past whatever tone or words triggered my stress response, and ask, “Do they have a point?” and “Could I have done something differently or could I do something differently that preserves both truth and peace?”
Sometimes, the obvious answer is no. For instance, when a commenter suggests that pornography is a good way for couples to educate themselves about physical intimacy, there’s no truth in that and I will continue to oppose porn for the harm it does to those involved. (Though I don’t approve most comments in that vein—see my comments policy.)
More often, if when l listen and process what a commenter’s challenge is about, I might change my mind about something, clarify my thoughts, understand how I can communicate better in the future, or at least understand where others are coming from.
And again, I should do that in my marriage more!
How about you? Are you able to look past the tone or triggers, think through what’s being said, and ask what it means for you and your marriage?
Challenges as Stress Responses
Sometimes a marriage blogger will share a challenge or attack they received with colleagues, typically looking for support or insight. Often, we remind one another the challenge or attack may have come from a place of personal pain. That is, the commenter had their own stress response to something, knowingly or unknowingly, said or did. So it’s possible that 90% of it was us and 10% them, but it’s also possible that 10% of it was us and 90% them—that is, their own history or perceptions.
How can knowing this change how we respond to challenges, specifically those from our mate?
Amon the paradoxes of marriage: when your spouse is most difficult to be around is when they might need you most near. (Again, not talking about abuse—that’s a different thing altogether). For instance, when I’m super-stressed and ranting about this, that, or the other, my husband (understandably) wants to retreat. But if, instead, he approaches and gives me a long hug, my heart rate and blood pressure lower, my breathing settles, I feel reassured, and I’m okay.
Likewise, when a spouse is angry and challenging you, you can respond by escalating the tension or defusing the situation. As Proverbs so aptly says:
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.Proverbs 15:1 (NASB)
That doesn’t mean the underlying issue goes away, but we can create a better environment to invite conversation, understanding, and peace.
If you’ve been pursuing better sexual intimacy, this can be particularly important! Sex is an area loaded with preconceived notions, theological misunderstanding, personal baggage, and even traumatic experiences. Whether you’re willing to push past your stress response, draw near, and try to understand your spouse could be the make-or-break for your marriage bed.
How do you respond to being challenged? Hopefully by challenging yourself to keep your head and heart in check, by remembering the biblical principles of peace and love, and by drawing near and listening.