Whenever a reader and her husband fight, he settles the matter by telling her, “I make all the money around here, so I make the rules.”
Another reader tells me that her spouse’s favorite fighting phrase is this, “You’re so selfish!”
And, I’m sure, there are much worse stories.
It’s easy to hear stories like this and draw a simple conclusion: these people are married to horrific partners.
While that might be true in some cases, what I really think is going on is this: they are married to people who don’t know how to communicate with kindness. As a result, when they feel threatened, these spouses resort to verbal leverage that most of us would describe as hurtful. They manipulate, castigate, and denigrate. They withhold affection. They make threats. They assert their power.
They use these tactics not because they enjoy hurting people. Rather they say hurtful things because, in the past, saying hurtful things has worked for them. Chances are, they’ve been using these tactics to get what they want for years—probably since childhood.
I’m sure there are some people who will argue with me, who will say that some people really are evil and that the hurtful things they say are evidence of their inner vile nature. I welcome your input, but I also ask you to try this thought experiment. It’s a simple one. Think back over your life. Have you ever said something hurtful to someone else? Did you feel completely in control of your mind when you said those hurtful things? Or out of control? Did those words come from a place of security? Or a place of insecurity? Did you say them because you wanted to verbally maim someone else? Or did you really say them because you wanted to be heard and understood and to get your way?
Be honest with yourself. The answers to those questions will help you to better understand all the seemingly vile people around you.
So, let’s, for a moment, assume you agree with me. How does one persuade a spouse to stop saying hurtful things? You do it by refusing to be hurt by the hurtful things your spouse says. By not allowing the words to hurt you, you disarm your spouse.
How do you avoid feeling hurt? Do some emotional surgery, and remove the internal button that your spouse’s words push. Why do you react to, “You’re so selfish”, “You never do anything worthwhile around here” or whatever your spouse’s button-pushing phrase might be? Chances are, your reaction comes from your own place of insecurity.
Once you remove your button, you’ll be able to stay unflappable in the face of conflict. It’s engaging with the negativity that gives your spouse the upper hand.
So do the opposite. Disengage.
When your spouse says that thing that usually pushes that button, don’t react. Sit there and smile, knowing that your spouse is only saying such things from a place of insecurity and powerlessness. Then calmly, slowly and with warmth in your voice, say something like:
We both know what you just said isn’t true. Why did you feel the need to say that?
Calling me that isn’t going to solve this disagreement. Let me know when you’re ready to solve this problem.
Wow, you must really be upset. I’m going to leave the room. Come talk to me once you’ve calmed down. I’d love to get to the bottom of this.
By doing this, you stop rewarding your spouse for dysfunctional communication tactics. It won’t happen overnight, but eventually your spouse will stop using them.
This post was sponsored by Jennifer Margulis, author of the upcoming investigative expose Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth and Baby Before Their Bottom Line. The book is a surprising look at the corporate interests behind many of our baby raising practices. Why do we keep kids in diapers until age 4? Do hospitals make money by selling the foreskins of babies? Is ultrasound necessary? Does the medical advice surrounding pregnancy and childbirth stem more from the desire for profit than it does from evidence-based best practices? This book answers all of those questions and more.
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.