“That’s all you did today?” With those words the marital conflict began. Heart rates quickened. Pulses started to race. “You never appreciate anything I do around here!” Now both partners started talking over one another. Winning (and thus gaining of sense of safety and control) became the goal of this “heated discussion.” Criticism increased. Defensiveness turned to accusation. Both people jumped to conclusions and both said things they never really wanted to say. Why? Because one statement, perhaps poorly phrased, was misunderstood and triggered the fight or flight response. Their rational brains were no longer running the show. Instead, their “fight-or-flight-to-save-your-butt-brains” were running things. But what could they have done differently? It’s hard to do things differently in the moment of defensiveness and anger. However, there are skills you can practice in the daily life of your marriage that will prime you to make a better response in such a moment. Practicing these two tips with your spouse when you encounter minor disagreements or during everyday conversation can prepare you for a better response in the “heat of the moment.”
First, practice thinking about the words you use when talking to your spouse. Some words come across as privileged, patronizing, or moralizing. For instance, “I need you to…” can come across as though my need is more important than your need, especially in a moment of conflict. It sounds entitled, as though “I” am entitled to having “my” needs met even at “your” expense.
“You should…” is a moralizing statement. It sounds as though the listener is wrong if they do otherwise. It induces guilt. In the words of Albert Ellis, “Don’t ‘should on people.”
“I encourage you to…” sounds patronizing, especially during the heat of an argument. It sounds like a way of saying, “I’m really right and ‘I encourage you’ to take the time to recognize that.”
So, what can you say instead?
- Try “It would really help me if you could….” Or, “I would like it if you….” These statements offer invitations to possible solutions.
- You might even try switching the “I” to “we.” “We might need to….” Or, “maybe we could….” These statements recognize that the marital partners form a team with no single partner more important than the other.
- An even bolder approach is to take ownership for our own part in the conflict and the solution. “I need to….” Or, “tell me again so I can better understand what you mean” are statements that help with this.
Second, practice recognizing the difference between the content of what your partner says and the relationship message underlying the content. The content merely refers to the topic of discussion or disagreement. The relationship message speaks to the connection between you and your spouse. Many times, a statement about content becomes a misunderstood relationship message because of tone of voice (which may be impacted by mood, tiredness, other people), the context, or the emphasis placed on certain words.
- For instance, “That’s all you did today?” can easily be misunderstood to mean “You should have done more.” When it might simply mean “I didn’t realize it was such a big job and would take so long.”
- “You’re home late” can be misunderstood as “You don’t care enough about me to get home earlier.” It might mean “I didn’t realize you would be so late. What happened?”
The only way to know is to check your initial reaction of defensiveness and anger so you can ask for or offer clarification. “Yes, it turned out to be a bigger job than I thought.” “Can I show you how much I did? It’s surprising.” “Sorry, traffic was heavy. I wanted to get home earlier.” “Yeah, I got a last-minute phone call at the office. Did my late arrival mess up any of your dinner plans?”
Think about the words you use and what they might mean during conflict. Recognize the difference between the content of the message and the relationship message inherent in a statement. These are subtle practices. However, paying attention and practicing these two tips can bring reduce conflict and bring greater intimacy to your marriage.