As a new wife, I had a plan. I would never let my husband see me ugly. I would get up before he did and put my hair in place and put on some make-up, even if I didn’t have time for a shower before he woke up. Since he was a Coast Guard officer and gone more than half the time anyway, I thought I could swing it. I wanted to protect Rob from the real, unvarnished me as long as possible.
The only problem was, because of his job responsibilities, he was getting up earlier and earlier. Never using an alarm clock, he would rise at 5am, then 4am, then 3am—I didn’t stand a chance against that. I slowly made my peace with letting him see me in my “natural state.” Today I’m surprisingly OK with Rob seeing me with crazy bedhead hair, puffy just-woke-up eyes and an imperfect complexion.
The Scapegoat Spouse
Unfortunately, that’s not the only “natural state” Rob gets to see. Over the years, I have also become more and more comfortable letting him see the ugly side of my personality, too. It happens to the best of us.
Engaged couples and newlyweds are usually wonderful about giving their other half the benefit of the doubt, treating him or her with love and respect, and looking for ways to make that other person’s day better. A funny thing happens with the passing of time, however. We don’t try quite so hard.
In fact, sometimes, we don’t even treat our spouse with the same courtesy we show other people in our lives. After all, our spouse is supposed to love us no matter what, right? So we let them see our ugly side—even when they have done nothing to bring it out.
I call it the Scapegoat Syndrome, and I am guilty of it myself. By definition, a scapegoat is someone made to bear the blame for others or to suffer in their place. In the Old Testament book of Leviticus, the high priest would symbolically lay the sins of the people on the head of a goat before releasing it into the wilderness on Yom Kippur.
When I unleash my frustrations on my unsuspecting husband instead of the actual source of my stress, he becomes my scapegoat. For example, one afternoon after several hours of trying to prepare dinner with near-constant interruptions from my toddler and preschooler, Rob asked me, “So, what were you thinking of doing for dinner?”
I am ashamed to admit that I bit his head off on the spot. “What, you don’t want the chicken dinner I’ve been working on for hours? I have spent all day on this meal, and you’re telling me you’re in the mood for something else? No way! We are eating what I’m making!”
Stunned silence from Rob. Then, “I just wanted to know if going out to eat would make the day easier for you.”
Talk about letting Rob see my ugly side—that was it! I was frustrated with the kids and with my own day—not with Rob—but he got the brunt of it anyway.
Escaping the Syndrome
I know I’m not the only one with Scapegoat Syndrome. Why do we do this to the people we love the most? It’s probably because we assume they’ll never leave us. But if we look at the divorce rate, even among Christians, we realize that people are just not as good at unconditional love as God is. We break our promises to each other. When we don’t feel loved, we look for it in other places.
Don’t give your spouse a reason to look for love somewhere else because he or she has become your own scapegoat. The next time you feel the urge to speak harshly to him or her, take a deep breath and ask yourself:
- Why am I so angry? Am I reacting to just this situation or to an unresolved issue from the past?
- Is there something or someone else that has been frustrating me today that I am about to blame on my spouse?
- Would I speak to a co-worker or friend with the words that are on the tip of my tongue right now?
If you find that you are indeed on the brink of the Scapegoat Syndrome, diffuse the tension by simply telling your spouse what’s bothering you. For example, try something like, “I’m dealing with a lot of stress at work (or with the kids) today. I apologize if I come across as irritable. I’m not upset with you, I just have a lot on my mind.”
Likewise, if you notice that your spouse is short-tempered or distant, instead of taking it personally right away, you might gently ask, “Has your day been pretty hectic? Is there anything I can do to make it less stressful?”
In all of our interactions with our spouse, let’s remember some guidelines from the Bible:
- Calm down. Instead of giving in to flaring tempers, we are to be self-controlled (1 Peter 1:13 and 2 Peter 1:6). Galatians 5:23 lists self-control as part of the fruit of the Spirit. First Corinthians 13:5 says, “[Love] is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”
- Think before you speak. James 1:19-20 tells us: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” James warns us that “no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).
- Be gentle. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Gentleness is also included in the fruit of the Spirit.
It’s great to look nice for our spouses on the outside, but let’s spend even more energy on taming the ugly side of our human nature by escaping the Scapegoat Syndrome.