How The Way You Talk To Your Spouse Is Hurting Your Marriage

“You never take out the trash. You’re a lazy bum, just like your father.”

“If I don’t vacuum, it would never get done. I guess you’re fine living like a pig.”

“Where’s supper. I’ve been working all day and I’m hungry. What did you do all day?”

“Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin.” Proverbs 15:23 NIV

These are just some of the hurtful comments spouses say to each other. When you are on the receiving end of such comments, you feel attacked. Your Fight, Freeze or Flee response is triggered and you either come out verbally punching back, slide away into the garage, kitchen, office, room or work, or totally shutdown with the silent treatment. It hurts and many times some part of you really wants to hurt them back.

When you are the one who says them, what you are trying to communicate is your displeasure with something you have or are experiencing. You want your spouse to change something. You want your spouse to either do something or stop doing something, or to do something differently. And you are frustrated that you are having to say something to them about it because it is not the first time, or it is something that you think “everyone” should know, or it is something that has a special meaning to you and you have been hurt by it.

In Dr. John Gottman’s epic research on marriage, he discovered this pattern of communicating he called, “Harsh Start Ups”. All marriage occasionally experience Harsh Start Ups, but he noticed that marriages that had fewer of them and that were repaired quickly tended to stay together long term, while those marriages where Harsh Start Ups were common tended to end in couples moving toward divorce.

What we have noticed through decades of working with couples is that Harsh Start Ups can be replaced by learning a new skill. When you feel like using a Harsh Start Up in communicating what you would like your spouse to do differently, you can replace it with a new skill and successfully communicate what it is you wanted to say. By using this tool, your spouse will be more inclined to hear what you are saying and not feel like they are being attacked.

When you feel the frustration about what you spouse has done or not done or that you hope will be done differently, catch yourself and take a deep breath or two. Pause long enough to grab a piece of paper and a pen and practice on paper what it is you want to say. Follow this formula:

  1. What specific behavior or lack of behavior did you observe? Write it without using any “YOU” statements. Write it from your experience. “When I saw you put trash in a full trash can in the kitchen and then go sit down on the couch to watch the game…”
  2. How did the behavior impact you? Write how you felt or were impacted by it. “I felt like you take me for granted that I am doing the dishes and now will have another chore of emptying the trash. And then you’ll expect me to be lovey to you and it doesn’t make me feel lovey, it makes me feel like I don’t matter.”
  3. What would you like to be different? Write a sentence about what you would like to happen in the future. “What I want is that when you put trash in a full trash can, I want you to take it out right then. And before you go to bed, I want you to make sure you check the kitchen trash can and empty it if it is about ¾ full.” Know that what you are asking for may be received and agreed with, renegotiated in some form, or found to not be doable.
  4. Reread what you have written. Connect face to face with your spouse. Tell your spouse what it is that you need to change. “When I experience…”, “I feel…”, “What I want is…”.

We have found that this formula that replaces Harsh Start Ups to be helpful for hundreds of couples. And we believe it will be helpful for you and your spouse as you intentionally create the marriage of your hearts’ deepest desires. Let us know how it goes. Or if you have a different approach to communicating changes you desire from your spouse’s behavior, share them here so that everyone can benefit from them.

This article was written by Roy and Devra Wooten, authors of “The Secret to a Lifetime Love”. Learn more at © Roy and Devra Wooten 2015. All Rights Reserved. You may replicate this article as long as it is provided free to recipients and includes appropriate attribution. Written permission for other use may be obtained at [email protected].