How can the man you love be such a jerk sometimes?
It’s almost as if he wants to push you away.
To explain, let me tell you a story. It’s about the time I met a skunk.
Skunks get hit on the highway all the time where I live. If your windows are down, the smell fills your car instantly, leaving you gagging.
Nobody likes skunks. Telling someone they smell like a skunk is the worst of insults.
A while back, I was walking along a country road with my daughter and some friends. Clouds were skidding across a blue sky. The air smelled like freshly-made doughnuts. It was a perfect summer’s day.
We came around a corner, and I skidded to a halt. “Stop, everyone!” I shouted.
Up ahead was a black-and-white skunk.
She was making her way down the road as fast as she could to get away from us. Three babies scampered behind her, protected under her fluffy tail.
She was going the same direction we were going. There was no way around, so we followed her cautiously. I asked the children to keep their voices down so we wouldn’t scare her.
I’d hoped the skunk family would turn off the road, but they didn’t. Instead, they kept scurrying along … until they came to a cattle guard. Mama Skunk wasn’t daunted. She started to pick her way across the guard rails, her babies following as best they could.
Halfway across, the inevitable happened. One of the babies slipped and disappeared from sight.
Mamma Skunk didn’t turn around. She got herself to the other side, then checked that her other two children made it across safely. As they snuggled up against her, she looked up at us, then looked down at her trapped baby. Her fear wasn’t enough to make her abandon her child.
We were at an impasse.
We couldn’t cross until she moved, and she clearly wasn’t going to budge.
So we waited. It wasn’t a hardship on such a lovely day.
Finally, Mama Skunk made a decision. She led her little family up to the bank beside the road, and they vanished into the grass. Where had they gone?
As we approached the cattle guard, we found out. She’d found a way to get beneath the guard rails. She was down there in the dark, with all three babies clustered around her.
We crossed over as quietly as we could. Once we were on the other side, my friend—bolder than me—crouched down and spoke to the mamma skunk. “Hi there, beautiful. My, you have a gorgeous family.” She whispered, “Have a look. She’s not going to spray.”
I peeked down through the rails. Mama Skunk’s nose lifted as she sniffed at us. Her eyes latched onto mine, and my heart caught. She was beautiful. She lowered her gaze to check on her babies, making sure each one was accounted for, then resumed watching us. She was a mother like me, just wanting to keep her children safe.
I learned a powerful lesson that day about defenses.
The more vulnerable you are—if you’re born without sharp claws or fearsome fangs or huge muscles—the more you need a way to protect yourself and those you love. You need some way to keep others at a distance until you feel safe.
This isn’t just true for skunks. It’s true for all of us.
It’s easy to make fun of skunks for the fabulously awful odor they spray when startled, but it’s not so easy to see that we all do some pretty off-putting things when frightened.
Maybe your man shuts down and stops communicating. Maybe your teenage daughter takes it out on you by screaming, “I hate you!” Maybe your mother turns into a know-it-all who tells you what to do.
People who feel vulnerable find ways to make themselves feel safer.
Unlike skunks, we don’t have just one default way to protect ourselves. Our defenses are mostly psychological. But they serve the same purpose: to keep others at a distance.
You’d think defenses wouldn’t be necessary in a loving relationship, but they are. When we let people into our lives, we give them the power to hurt us. One wrong word from a spouse can wound us more deeply than cruel comments from strangers.
So we learn to push people away.
We don’t do it because we’re cruel. We do it because we don’t know any other way. Hurting those we love is sometimes the only way we know to get the space and relief we need.
Hating skunks because of their smell is like hating people because of their defenses.
Underneath, we’re all the same. We’re vulnerable, and we need some kind of sword and shield to feel safe as we venture out into the big wide world.
That doesn’t excuse your man from being a jerk.
But it does show you a healthier way to deal with him.
Learn to distinguish defenses from genuinely aggressive actions. Look past what he is saying to what his body language is conveying. His eyes will tell you more than his words.
When you can spot your man’s defensive behavior, you know something important. You don’t have to take his behavior personally, because it’s not about you. It really is about him. He’s feeling scared, weak, or threatened.
Confront him aggressively, and you reinforce his belief that people aren’t safe. His shields will go up even further.
Instead, try this. Show him you’re safe. Speak gently. Give him the space he needs to feel comfortable. You don’t have to call him on his unpleasant behavior, but you don’t have to stay around for it, either.
Later, when you’re both feeling calm and close, you might want to open a conversation about defenses. Talk about some of the things you do when you’re feeling vulnerable. What do you need to feel secure? What does he need? How do your defenses make him feel, and how do his defenses make you feel? Could you try doing things differently?
When my father was a kid, he knew people who kept a skunk as a pet. They’d removed the scent glands. It wasn’t right to do that to a wild animal, but my father still recalls being impressed by how intelligent, loving, and loyal that skunk was.
Don’t judge an animal by its defenses, and don’t judge people by theirs.
That’s how we get a safer, kinder world.
P.S. Your Brilliance expert author James Bauer wants you to know that learning this skill will help bring you closer together. Allowing him to be in a bad mood, without trying to fix it, builds trust and intimacy.