Subtexts and Apologies

My wife and I had an extensive talk about about how men and women hear things differently last night. When you talk to someone, there is often what you could call a “subtext” beneath what you are saying. Such as if you say: “The closet is not clean.” The subtext could be “You haven’t been doing your job in keeping it clean.” Now what I was coming to realize that while both men and women can hear subtexts, women communicate largely on the basis of subtext. Jill would not say to Alice that “The closet is not clean” because Alice would definitely understand that to mean “You have not been doing your job” rather than just a plain observation of status of the closet. So Jill just starting to clean up the closet herself might prompt Alice to say “Oh, I’m sorry, I should have cleaned up the closet” which would be the intended result. So the net is that there is a bit of a rule that direct communication is generally too strong, and the best way to let the other person know something is for your actions or words to loosely alude to it.

Now this leads to an interesting situation regarding apologies. So if I tell my wife the closet is not clean, she will likely hear me accusing her of letting it get dirty and that will hurt her feelings. But if I then tell her that actually, no, I really wasn’t saying she did anything bad at all, but I was simply asking for help cleaning it up, then she’d immediately feel better. What I did was tell her “Don’t worry the bad subtext you heard was not really there, you’re perfectly fine.” So, often, Jaime will feel much better if I just explain the subtext.

It does not work in reverse, however! Let’s pretend that for some reason Jaime saying “The closet is not clean” really hurt my feelings. (sorry need to work on the example) I say, “That hurt my feelings.” She says “Oh I didn’t mean that you weren’t cleaning it up enough.” I will not feel better. This is because I was not hurt by what I thought she meant by it (the subtext). I was hurt by what she actually said. Now she is thinking “I didn’t mean anything malicious by this, I simply need to explain that to my husband and he’ll feel better” In reality, whatever her intent, it hurt my feelings. If she explains that she didn’t mean anything bad by it, she thinks she is saying “Don’t worry I didn’t mean anything bad” but what I will hear is “It’s not legitimate for your feelings to be hurt by this, get happy now.”

The more she explains how she didn’t mean anything bad, the worse it will get because that sounds like she’s justifying herself and invalidating my feelings. She is thinking, however, that “If he only knew I had no bad subtext, he’d feel better.” She may even be thinking “It’s not fair for him to get his feelings hurt if I wasn’t trying to hurt them. ” Which from a man’s perspective is kind of funny because his life as a husband is one of constantly trying avoid hurting his wife’s feelings when he doesn’t mean to hurt them 🙂 He’s always trying to deal with the messages he either sent and didn’t know about it, or didn’t send at all, but were received that way by his wife because he doesn’t use the female subtext communications rules. Is there any way out of this, and where does the Gospel fit in?


Men: Men need to admit that subtexts are real. They are in the spirit of what is being communicated. Women may overinterpret a subtext, but if you are “out of the Spirit” you are legitimately sending a bad signal, and if someone is hurt by it, you need to be willing to apologize. In other words, you said “The closet is not clean” and what you wanted your wife to hear was “Can you clean it?” but deep in your heart you were also upset that she didn’t clean it before. The fact that she heard the part about you being upset in that case may not seem fair since it was just a fleeting thought, but it was there in the spirit so it’s actually perfectly fair. If you don’t want someone else to hear it, then don’t think or feel it. The only way to do that is to stay in the Spirit. If they do hear it, then own up to it, don’t argue about it. It feels really unfair when they hear that, and it’s frustrating because you were trying really hard for them not to. But they did. You can end up feeling like you have to be a perfect person not to hurt your wife’s feelings. Well that’s kind of true. So try to stay in the Spirit, but expect to hurt them, and if you can take responsibility when you are out of the Spirit by saying something like “You know what I’m frustrated, and I had a bad heart toward you about it, I’m sorry” instead of spending time trying to pretend that you were pure and she shouldn’t be hurt, you’ve got the gold key.


Women: It’s a very scary thing for a woman’s shortcoming to come out into the open because female culture is built on performance. If the woman does not perform, she is a failure. Women spend their lives trying to meet the hidden expectations in order to never fail to measure up and suffer the associated embarrasment and rejection. I personally believe that this is a missing key in breaking bondages for women — accepting and facing shortcomings. Trying to avoid being seen with any shortcomings is a kind of pride, and the effort to prevent that from happening is works. This is a very hard truth for women. I don’t think any kind of personal pep talks will fix the negativity women experience from this kind of culture. I believe the only way out is trutly to repent of the pride and works. This means being willing to be seen as “not measuring up” and when the devil jumps on you about it, to basically tell him he is a liar and that in fact by not measuring up, you’re ridding yourself of the pride and works that keep you from real godliness and spiritual beauty. Boy that’s tough isn’t it.


Now when women are dealing with men, it’s it’s harder because women know all about subtexts, and if they want to give you one it will be done intentionally. So when you get your feelings hurt and she wasn’t intending to hurt them, that’s going to be upsetting. “You heard a subtext I didn’t give, that’s not fair!” The hard part here is that either what you actually said was hurtful to him and you didn’t think it should be, or a subtext you sent that you thought was harmless was hurtful to him. You may have had no malice, but it had significance to him that you may not understand. You need to accept the fact that his feelings were really hurt by it, and try to understand why, or just make him feel better. Don’t try to convince him it wasn’t hurtful, which you’ll be heavily tempted to do. The fact is that it was hurtful, regardless of your intent. So for both men and women there is a similarity: something you don’t think should be hurtful can be. For men, because you are sending messages you’re not aware of, and for women because the message you’re sending seems fine to you but hurts him. In both cases, if you blame the hurt person for getting their feelings hurt, it’s an unhealthy form of manipulation.

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  1. OK, so we got our first test on my theory the other night. I’m using this example because it is pretty innocuous and really was not a big deal but has the right dymanics to expand the discussion:

    Here is the set up. My friend is sharing something personal that I thought was relevant to both Jaime and I. I wanted her to be included because it had a lot of bearing on a future decision. However, just as we started to talk about it, Jaime left the room. This hurt my feelings a little because it sent me the signal that the major decision, and the information we were about to get was “my thing” instead of “our thing.”

    So there was a subtext that hurt me. Now Jaime could nullify the subtext and that would help, but it wouldn’t exactly fix the problem, because her leaving, whatever her reason was, sent me that signal. So the issue is not whether we agree on the subtext, but whether we agree on the action. It’s difficult. Leaving at that time, no matter her intent, was hurtful to me. If she sees why it was hurtful to me, that is what actually erases the subtext for me. If she understands why it was hurtful then I have confidence that it won’t happen again, it was a mistake, or what have you. If she only says “I didn’t mean to send you a signal that it was just ‘your thing'” then it’s like nullifying my perspective or reason for having my feelings hurt and no progress is made.

  2. I think the situation in the comment is a little different from the situation in the post. Maybe something to explore is whether hearing subtext is related to one’s sensitivity level. Whether you are a man or a woman, you will hear more subtext if you are more sensitive… although I expect women will almost always fall on that end of the spectrum more than on the insensitive.

    I think there is a more of a gender gap in giving subtext, however. It seems that women tend to rely on, and therefore operate by, giving subtext when they speak. I don’t see many men doing that unless the context calls for it (i.e. the need for diplomacy is clearly high). Women definitely tend to communicate on one level of indirectness than they mean (i.e. “Didn’t I clean this closet yesterday?” has a tendency to mean, “Did you mess this up?”)

    So this is interesting and needs more exploring.

    But what I am really interested in getting to is when/how apologies work. What is an apology, really? When are you supposed to use it? How do you take care of a person’s hurt feelings? Does it matter if you were misinterpreted? Is it your job to help them see your perspective? To be less sensitive? How do both of you work through it? Who has more authority in deciding… the offender or the offendee?

    I am undecided on what the Bible says in this matter. It is difficult for me to see Jesus as someone who apologized a lot. (Obviously He didn’t sin so that doesn’t help! 😉 But that means that even though He offended a lot of people, He still wouldn’t have apologized for that… He would have only apologized in situations among those He loved that warranted it. He didn’t apologize to Martha, for example. So what would be His policy? What would He do if He were dealing with each of us, in any given situation?

    Somehow, the role of apologizing must be related to forgiving, which was extremely important to Jesus. So I think we must preserve the sanctity of the role of forgiveness, even though we are sinful beings who need to ask forgiveness much more often than Jesus did. He said if we forgave much, we would be forgiven much. So does that mean it is the purported offender’s role to forgive the person who’s feelings are hurt? Or is it role of the person whose feelings are hurt? Both? Assuming someone is hearing subtext all the time, or hearing incorrectly, how does the apologizing go to help the hypersensitivity?

    Additionally, even though I don’t believe we are supposed to go around asking forgiveness (apologizing) all the time, I also don’t believe in being dismissive. A dismissive person is equally in the wrong as a hypersensitive person, with the added problem that a dismissive person will ignore real problems that a hypersensitive person (because they are so) rightly discerns. To write someone off dismissively is dangerous because although you are being less offendable (a virtue), they are often more offensive (a vice). They are taking advantage of a stronger conscience. Just because they are less sensitive, they can’t take advantage of others who are more… they need to be humble and actually listen to see whether or not the hypersensitive person is correct before they dismiss the situation.

    It’s funny, but I see this tension in action during the Dr. Phil show sometimes. Dr. Phil is very sensitive (discerning) and will bring things up that he spots. And sometimes he overdiscerns and gives the client time to prove him wrong. But he is also very unoffendable (not sensitive personally), so that is good. I think he demonstrates a good balance there. But of course, his moral compass is off as a non born-again person. The point is, watching his show helps me see that the opposite worldviews of dismissiveness and hypersensitivity are not helpful to live in. Some sort of balance is possible.

    So that is my situation. I think the progress we’re making here is significant. And obviously we want to figure out where we respect each other’s differences and where we need to change—both of us, together.

  3. I so appreciate you both putting this situation on the table for discussion. As men and women are different, and both made in the image of God, I think it is critical for harmony in the home to try to get a handle on communication.

    I find the discussion fascinating and I am reminded of Dr. Emmerson Eggerichs’ book called ‘Love and Respect,’ The LOVE she most desires, and the RESPECT he desperately needs. You speak of “subtext” which I think is an astute observation. He talks about how women and men “hear” differently. He says that women hear with “pink hearing aids” and men hear with “blue hearing aids.” He also says that men view situations with “Blue glasses on” and women view the same situation with “pink glasses on.”

    As the title of his work suggests, he believes that men’s greatest need is to be respected. That is why in Ephesians 5:33 Paul writes, “Each of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” (Niv) He believes that the woman’s greatest need is to be loved. As mates and best friends then it would be critical that spouses would understand this about one another. Because of the different hearing aids and glasses this is not easy. This is why God shares this verse in the form of a command. As you suggest above, to do this well we must be “walking in the Spirit” for sure.

    Through the lense of Eggerichs’ work, I see the above examples this way. In the closet example, Jaime felt unloved by your comment about the closet because she “heard” with her “pink hearing aids” something unloving to her ears. In the example of Jaime leaving the room, I believe that you were hurt because her action “felt” disrespectful to you with your “blue glasses” on. (You might have felt sad or anger but the root is disrespect)

    Upon reflection, I think Eggerichs is really on to something here in terms of conflict between men and women and getting to the root cause. The challenge then is how to handle this, because I would bet that in the above examples, you were not ‘intending’ to be unloving, and Jaime was not ‘intending’ to be disrespectful. None the less it hurts when we FEEL our spouses are unloving and disrespectful to us. (Let’s leave your nuance alone right now about actually having a “bad heart” towards someone. I think this is a great point and this awareness should only make it easier to engage in the conversation that Eggerichs recommends)

    Dr. Eggerich gives some very concrete examples for working through these situations which can feel a little akward at first, but they allow time for the “subtext,” intended or unintended to clear.

    As a quick example, I’ll use the ‘leaving the room’ example only because it is easier for me as the man. I will put myself in the husband role. So Jaime leaves the room. I find this disrespectful as the man. (The reasons matter, but not really) Instead of getting upset with Jaime, I go and find her and say something in a loving tone like, “Is everything ok? That felt disrespectful when you left the room. Did I say something unloving?” Now she is alerted to the fact that “subtexts” are happening and as a loving wife she now has a choice to make. If she was hurt by something I said, she can say so and also apologize for ‘coming across’ as disrespectful. This is a nice nuance and an important nuance because she acknowledges that she came across to me as disrespectful, which validates me and my feelings, but she is not admitting, nor does she need to, that her ‘intent’ was to be disrespectful. (If on reflection, she realizes that she “had a bad heart” and was actually intending to communicate disrespect, she can apologize and ask for my forgiveness – which I will extend.)

    Through our relationship with Christ we are able to defer to one another and learn over time how the other sees these situations and try and get out ahead of any conflict. (Asking ourselves, for example, will leaving the room right now FEEL disrespectful to my husband? – if the answer is yes, and barring any emergency bathroom needs, the wife will defer and stay in the room)

    The book is a good one with lots of clear examples and practical application. I am not looking to over simplify your examples and observations. My opinion though would be that Dr. Eggerichs could contribute nicely to your study on this.

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