Why Good Spouses Say Bad Things

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.

Thoughts?

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.

25 comments… add one

  • Lesli Doares April 2, 2013, 10:24 am

    Great post. While I agree that saying hurtful things doesn’t automatically make someone a bad spouse, a good spouse would learn to communicate more productively. I love your second option of stating that comment won’t solve the issue. It’s clear, concise, and calm. All great ways to communicate.

    Reply
    • Marina July 29, 2013, 12:12 pm

      My husband would get even more annoyed if I remained calm. He would then probably say I was being arrogant and giving him attitude.

      Reply
      • hurtfeelings November 20, 2013, 6:20 pm

        I would agree. It doesn’t help either. It would be nice to say that but the come backs are even worse. i wish I could resolve issues without being attacked or made out to “ALWAYS” be the bad person or the person who is always wrong.

  • Lucy April 2, 2013, 11:53 am

    This is good advice. And the few times I’ve succeeded at doing it I have to say that it worked. My spouse is like this: addicted to blame and frequently disrespectful to me and to our children. He has acknowledged it and is trying to do better, but he has food sensitivities that impact his moods. He has acknowledged that his anger and his resentment come from a place of insecurity and fear. I’m trying so hard to be understanding and to not let him get under my skin, but I’m really struggling right now. The past two weekends have been awful, and when he speaks to me with blame and scorn in his voice it sucks away any goodwill that I may feel. I keep trying and hoping that things will get better, but time and again just when it feels like we have turned a corner and things are getting better we take a nosedive. We are both miserable right now and I don’t know what to do. How do you surgically remove that trigger? I’m working on my self esteem: making sure that I exercise, trying to establish better habits and routines, being careful about what I eat. I’m trying to replace the negative voices in my own head with positive ones, but it’s so difficult when I actively need to carve his voice out of my head as well.

    Reply
    • Lesli Doares April 2, 2013, 12:06 pm

      This is when therapy can be really helpful–for him alone, you alone, and/or both together. Changing behavior is really tough. Especially when it’s based on old patterns and strong emotions like fear and insecurity. It’s almost impossible to do alone. Therapy, coaching, teleseminars, workbooks, etc., all can help by introducing new ways of thinking/behaving and having an accountability piece. That’s why 12-step programs work. Good luck.

      Reply
      • Alisa April 2, 2013, 12:10 pm

        Lesli–so true. Great answer. Lucy–also, I find that visualization can help. I imagine how I want to react when my husband (or someone else) does or says certain things. I see myself calm and I meditate on how my husband (or whom ever) isn’t trying to hurt me–really picking those layers apart and seeing what comes from his side vs from my side of the interaction. I do this alone–calmly. I also might decide how I will distract myself–perhaps by walking out of the room–if I get angry myself. Then when a real situation presents itself, I see it as a form of practice. And I go easy on myself, telling myself that I only need to stay calm for 1 min, 2 min etc.

      • Lucy April 2, 2013, 3:51 pm

        Thank you Lesli and Alicia. Good advice all around – I am currently in solo therapy, and although my husband has resisted in the past I think he may be coming around on the issue. Visualizaion is not something that I have tried and it seems like a great idea.

  • JohnMcG April 2, 2013, 12:29 pm

    In my case, what this leads to is a meta-discussion about how whatever was said wasn’t so bad, that the statement was true because it arose from a kernel of truth, and my inability to handle anything negative.

    Reply
  • tobie h April 2, 2013, 12:41 pm

    Agree!!

    The only thing that I would do differently is take out any statements that might sound condescending. Some people (my husband and I) are pretty sensitive to such things like “Come talk to me once you’ve calmed down” or “Let me know when you’re ready to solve this”, especially when one or both are controlling our tempers. Sometimes it’s better to be inviting, rather than risk sounding superior. “I’d like to solve this with you” or “Let’s try again after we take a break” are softer, warmer approaches.

    Reply
  • Alisa April 2, 2013, 12:59 pm

    Tobie– Great points. JohnMcG: I wonder what would happen if you refused to engage in the meta discussion. Instead of splice and dice your ability to handle negativity, you might say, “That may be true, but I still find it hurtful” or “that may be true, but it doesn’t move the discussion forward.” With these things, I find it’s better to keep it to very short exchanges–even just one sentence. Also sometimes asking it as a question, “Why do you think you feel the need to point that out? Why do you think you keep getting stuck on that?” Tobie’s point is true: tone of voice and sincerity are key.

    Reply
    • brandy July 6, 2014, 3:29 pm

      I think that’s a good way to respond. It validates what the other person is saying, without getting your off track of what you’re trying to say. Good advice.

      Reply
  • Maile April 2, 2013, 1:05 pm

    I’ve been in that moment. I have felt the anger and hurt flow as my husband threw verbal barbs at me in hopes of tearing me down and winning whatever he was after. No, it isn’t easy to hear those threats. When I’m angry I walk away – I’ve said and done things that only made the situation worse and so have learned to take a long walk … not drive, walk. When I’m that emotional a walk helps and is safer =) When I’m calmer I come back and talk ignoring his barbs.
    I wish I knew what exactly brought about a change in him, but I don’t. Not that I’m complaining, because I’m not. I love it. Some time ago it happened and we’ve been talking more. He has been the one to push the issue about us talking. I tried doing that myself and just pushed him away in the process. I guess he wasn’t ready ?
    I love this post. It touches on an issue that affects many relationships and offers a wonderful opportunity to change the dynamics … for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When someone attacks we tend to defend which they find offensive. If we calmly state as Alisa suggested that attacking us won’t solve the issue at hand, and even suggest they come find us when they are calm and ready to find a solution, we are effectively communicating that what they have used before to get their way is no longer effective. That changes everything and makes them think. And opens a new door of communication and solutions.

    Reply
  • cj renzi April 2, 2013, 2:45 pm

    Marvy article, Alisa! We find that disengaging and a bit of wait time while the emotions reset, are excellent strategies for diffusing and avoiding out of character remarks. Thanks for another neato post!

    Reply
  • Althea April 2, 2013, 2:55 pm

    All of those replies sound extremely condescending, as though you’re talking to a small child (which admittedly they are behaving like), and a mite controlling. When the discussion doesn’t go the way you want you simply seize control and decide the conversation is over? Who gave you the authority to end a conversation that is clearly important to the other person. How about something more respectful but along the same lines “I know you don’t really mean that, you’re just really frustrated (or feeling attacked, or whatever is appropriate here). Should we put this on the back burner for a while so you can organize your thoughts?” If they reply that they don’t want to stop discussing something you can then reply that you’re willing to continue, but name calling isn’t constructive. Using wording like “Let me know when you’re ready to solve this problem” sounds like what parents tell out of control children. Not respectful. You can be direct and address the real issue without stopping the other person from expressing themselves, and giving them some say in the situation. Being consistently shut down cold in the middle of expressing themselves (albeit inappropriately) is only going to make someone more angry and feel as though they have no voice in the relationship.

    Reply
    • LibertyLover July 14, 2014, 6:59 pm

      Althea – I couldn’t agree with you more. I was appalled at the snarky suggested statements (to be made while smiling no less) Wounded people need mature, loving support, not arrogance and smirks. What’s suggested only escalates tense situations. Therefore I cannot help but wonder if the author is a ‘pot stirrer’, an instigator, a button pusher who then sits back and plays innocent.

      Reply
  • Daina April 2, 2013, 3:36 pm

    I have such a hard time not reacting. I’ll admit, my feelings get hurt pretty easily, and my husband knows it. My husband will go for the jugular right from the start, so it usually sends me right over the edge. Instead of him saying “I don’t agree” or “I don’t like the way you’re acting right now”, he’ll threaten divorce or threaten to leave. That sends me into a tailspin that does nothing but get ugly. I’ve always been a communicator, and want to keep talking, thinking that we’ll get somewhere, but it never does. I really need to spend some time thinking about how I could/should react the next time.

    Reply
  • Alisa April 2, 2013, 4:43 pm

    Daina–I don’t know how things are for you, so this may or may not work. I try to use humor, something that does work between me and my husband. If he threatened divorce, I might say something like, “Haven’t we already done that 798 times? Let’s try a new strategy.” Again, as with everything, it takes the right tone of voice and body language to pull off. Another thing you might do is just agree with him, but lightly, “You want a divorce? Okay, I’m willing to try that and see how it works for us. Which one of us is getting the goldfish?”

    Reply
    • Daina April 3, 2013, 1:31 pm

      I’m willing to try just about anything! Thanks for the suggestion, Alisa!

      Reply
  • Sheryl April 3, 2013, 12:30 pm

    I so agree with you about disengaging. But…it’s so tough to do that when your emotions are spilling over. So hard to stay calm – but definitely worth it if you are able to keep reminding yourself that it will work out better in the longrun. And I agree that hurtful things don’t always come from a good place; usually the person who says them is suffering in their own way.

    Reply
  • Amanda April 3, 2013, 8:18 pm

    I agree completely…now what if you are the spouse with the harsh tongue from years of using verbal assault to feel in control? How do you overcome and treat your spouse better?

    Reply
  • Andre April 4, 2013, 11:56 am

    Alisa,

    I am glad that I discovered your blog through your book. I love your style of writing, the knowledge of the subject and most of all as a man I appreciate the kindly humor toward your husband. Your message is very needed and it’s very inspiring!

    “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.”- it’s so true.

    We all have our own inner challenges and insignificance and in order to survive, sometimes attacking is the best defense. It would be wonderful if we can remember the old saying “When someone hurts us we should write it down in sand, where winds of forgiveness can erase it away…. But, when someone does something good for us, we must engrave it in stone where no wind can ever erase it.”

    With much respect,

    Andre

    Reply
    • Alisa April 4, 2013, 3:34 pm

      Dear Andre–Thanks for the kind words. So happy to hear you’ve found some help here. Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  • Jerry N April 10, 2013, 11:52 pm

    Lots of home truths in your article Alsia. Well done for pointing them out. Sometimes, when both spouses have strong and dominant personalities, they may be so used to being the ones who have the last word (or have their opinions go unchallenged) in a workplace environment that they will apply that same dynamic in a domestic environment without thinking of who their auduence is (husband, wife, lover etc). This can have disasterous consequences for that personal relationship as both want to fight it out verbally to see who is really top dog. Taking off that “workplace hat” and replacing it with the “home front” hat can be a real challenge for some.

    Reply
  • Sarahtheprincess November 5, 2013, 1:30 am

    The past is all consuming. Ocassionally I’ll sling arrows even if we’ve had a wonderful day. I really don’t understand why these outbursts are sporadic, the last year has been, at the very least, a difficult one. Even though I was the one that was wronged, bringing it up often and unannounced has turned me into the wrong doer myself. Somehow he still lets me sleep beside him at night so that might be some hope that the future me can change my approach to the sensitive subject, maybe eventually I can convince myself it has been resolved and I don’t have to hold on to it anymore. I really really want to let go, my subconscious won’t let me yet. Anyone else suffering from an out of control narcissism issue?

    Reply
  • letting go January 6, 2014, 1:54 pm

    Very insightful post. I found some parallels between this advice and my understanding of buddhism (I am not a buddhist but am interested in it, so I may be misinterpreting some of it), which I turned to when hit with a very mean thing my wife said to me the other night.

    Both of us get distracted by our phones and sometimes don’t hear each other or our daughter. I criticized her for it (in a ‘playful’ way) earlier in the day, but did the same damn thing later in the day. She said, sarcastically, that I was a ‘great father.” I have never been so angry in my life. I didn’t sleep, and my premature ventricular contraction (added heart beat, basically) manifested itself due to the stress. We resolved it, but the effect it had on me really made me understand that I need to manage my stress and anger – the heart palpitations are pretty scary even though they are benign.

    I had a strange intuition that I should read about buddhism to avoid letting external stress affect me in such an extreme way. Basically, from what I understand, buddhism would counsel me to ‘let it go’ (or disengage), and evaluate the thing (or person, or situation) that is causing my suffering. Anyway, good advice and it presents an interesting parallel.

    Reply

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