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How to Minimize Hurt Feelings
When You and Your Spouse Disagree
by Nancy Wasson, Ph.D.
One of the biggest on-going challenges for couples is how to reduce the bruised feelings that can result from disagreements and arguments. The residue from a no-holds barred “attack your opponent” verbal fight can last for decades. It is a result that may cause marital problems, marriage separation and ultimately, divorce, if over time it’s handled without care.
I have worked with many couples in marriage counseling who have struggled with forgiving each other for hurtful words they have said during a fight. Numerous times, the residue from a shouting match or an argument is left to accumulate like toxic dust on the relationship, with each subsequent episode adding another layer. Eventually, the fallout interferes with every component of the marriage as unaddressed issues and resentment build up until a marriage crisis is reached.
The tone of voice you use and the words you say during an argument are important. So is the way you give your message (screaming and hollering, for instance) and any non-verbal gestures you use (shaking or pointing your finger in your partner’s face). If you make fun of your spouse and show disrespect for him or her, you are hurting the chances for any real communication between the two of you.
All this makes it more and more difficult to pull back from the brink of major marriage problems, stressful confrontations and ultimately marital separation and divorce.
The same is also true if you make any threatening gestures and try to intimidate your partner with your anger. Honest, healthy communication requires a sense of safety from attack. Any good marriage counselor will tell you that a spouse who is afraid her partner will ridicule her ideas or feelings, either at the time or later during an argument, isn’t going to share what she is really feeling or thinking.
So how can you and your mate create an atmosphere of safety and protection so that you can both express your real feelings and thoughts? And how can you disagree in a way that you don’t permanently damage your marriage?
You can take action by asking your spouse if the two of you can collaborate to develop a list of fair fighting rules that you both agree to follow.
Begin to Repair Your Marriage with These 10 Suggestions
Here are several guidelines often used in marriage counseling sessions for you to consider:
- Even when you are in the white heat of anger, consider the possible damage that you could do if you let your anger out unrestrained. The challenge is for each of you to express yourself without damaging the what’s most important in your marriage. The core of the relationship has to be protected. There is no place in a healthy marriage for a spouse who wants to win an argument at all costs, no matter what she or he has to say or do to “win.” The same goes for a spouse who wants to “win” by hurting the partner as much as possible. Marital counseling could provide a safety valve when discussing sensitive issues.
- Be sure to show respect for each other, even if you can’t figure out how your spouse could possibly feel the way she or he does. You don’t have to agree and you don’t have to understand it—you just have to respect your spouse’s right to have differing ideas and opinions.
- Prohibit name-calling, cursing, belittling, mockery, sarcasm, screaming, and pushing, slapping, or other physical or emotional abuse. These actions will only cause hard feelings and division between you and will hurt your relationship. They will not help you to find constructive ways to resolve your differences. A marriage guidance expert can function as a coach to help reframe arguments.
- Don’t use words such as “always” and “never,” such as “You’re always late. I’m sick and tired of always waiting for you. You’re never on time for anything.” The words “never” and “always” are examples of over-generalizing, and they close communication doors instead of opening them. In addition, they divert the discussion from the real issues and turn the focus onto whether or not the other partner can come up with an example of a time when she or he wasn’t late but the partner was.
- Keep the discussion focused on the issue at hand. Many relationships have an informal “historian” who can recall every mistake the other spouse has ever made. When this happens, the discussion is diverted from the current issue to an argument about what may or may not have happened in the past, which greatly reduces the odds that the current disagreement will be resolved. Stick with present events instead of revisiting past history which can’t be changed.
- Listen to each other and let each person speak her or his mind. This can be difficult to do when you’re impatient, frustrated, and agitated. But until you’ve heard each other out, you do not have all the information you need to try to reach a respectful compromise.
- Take a break from the discussion when it gets too heated or “heavy.” Step outside on the deck, go to the bathroom, or do some deep breathing exercises to help relieve the stress. Let yourself cool down and give yourself a chance to recover your composure before continuing the discussion.
- Apologize immediately if you slip and say something that could hurt your spouse’s feelings. Say, “I didn’t mean that. I am sorry. I didn’t mean for that to come out sounding like that. Please forgive me for saying that. Let me try again.”
- Look for a “win-win” compromise solution. Some issues are more important to one spouse than the other, and it builds up good will to go along with your partner’s views when it doesn’t matter nearly as much to you.
If your mate wants you to record the checks you write in a certain way so that it’ll be easier for her or him to handle the bill-paying, it probably makes sense to agree to go along with it, even if it’s not the way you would do it. That will build up some good will so that the next time you have a differing viewpoint about something that’s really important to you, you’ll have a better chance of getting support from your spouse.
- If the subject’s too emotional for you and your spouse to resolve between you, then you might consider enlisting the help of a professional counselor to act as mediator. It may only take two to three sessions to clear the air, generate some new options, and reach a decision. And the best part is that by using a counselor to help you work out an acceptable compromise, you avoid the long-term strain and emotional drain that could damage your marriage for years.
Until you and your spouse can talk about emotional issues and have different opinions without being disrespectful to each other, it will be hard to tackle the really crucial issues in your marriage with any chance of real success. Without mutual respect and the security of knowing that you won’t be ridiculed, you will both be reluctant to express your true feelings and to show vulnerability.
But honesty with your genuine emotions is a key to overcoming your marital crisis and re-establishing an intimate marriage.
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