Updated: May 5, 2021
Marriage is such a big adjustment and is often harder than people expect. Conflict is normal, especially at the beginning when you are developing new habits and adjusting to life together. Many people never learned how to have a civil disagreement. When we disagree with someone in a polite way it is much more likely to result in conversation and compromise than it is in conflict.
Disclaimer: Abusive people will continue to be abusive even if you change your behavior. If changing your behavior hasn’t improved your relationship please seek professional help and prioritize your safety. This post is intended for couples in which both partners are willing to work on their relationship.
Let me give you an example, a spouse notices that a chore hasn’t been completed on the timeline that it needs to be done by and they bring it up in the following way.
Spouse 1: Why didn’t you take out the trash? It needs to be at the curb for pick up.
“Why didn’t you” is an accusation. It assumes that the task already should have been done. Especially when a deadline is missed it’s very natural to ask a question in this way, but it will most likely get a defensive angry response that focuses on giving an explanation instead of getting the task done. It tends to breed resentment on both sides instead of addressing the original complaint about the trash.
Instead of making accusations and focusing on the reason, when the task needs to be done immediately focus on the task with politeness.
Spouse 1: Honey, could you please take out the trash now? It needs to be at the curb for pick up.
If your spouse responds to politeness with hostility then some thought needs to happen about what is causing this hostility in response to politeness. Some questions to consider are: Is there built up resentment? What is causing the current problem? Are my expectations reasonable? Were my tone and words respectful? Is my spouse under stress? Let’s work with an example to see how these questions can help.
Spouse 2: I’m busy right now. You’re always asking me to do things that you can do yourself. Leave me alone.
Several things are communicated here. Spouse 2 has different expectations regarding chores than spouse 1. The tone suggests a build-up of resentment and that Spouse 2 feels like they are constantly being asked for things. Spouse 2 is being clear that they don’t want to do the chore and want to be left alone at the moment. Any attempt to pursue this conversation further at this point is only likely to result in conflict. I’d suggest this response:
Spouse 1: I hear that you’re busy and want to be left alone. When can we set a time so we can discuss how we can manage household chores so that I can get the help I need and you don’t feel put out?
From this response you can see that the point of these questions isn’t to excuse poor behavior, but to understand it so that you can address the root of the behavior. Asking for a time to discuss a broader issue highlights that it is a problem, but allows for the issue to be discussed at a better time. It may still get a harsh response, but this approach helps to focus on the issues at hand. When dealing with harsh responses it is better to wait until everyone is calm to address the problem than it is to respond in the moment. Sometimes silence in the moment is more productive than anything you can say.
If your spouse is responding harshly due to something that is not happening at that moment then it may be best to wait to address it until they are in a better mood. One way to gently address it in the moment would be to say, “I can see you’re upset right now, can you help me understand what’s bothering you?”
Preparing for a Larger Discussion
If you have a spouse that always seems hostile or angry then a larger discussion needs to take place. What is causing this anger and hostility? Setting guidelines for how to have a disagreement can make a big difference. If this has been a chronic problem in your marriage it may be best to seek professional help or at least get outside information on the problem. Anger: Taming a Powerful Emotion by Gary Chapman is a book that can be helpful for responding to people with hostility and anger. The last chapter is specifically targeted to helping people respond to someone who is angry in their moment of anger.
It can be helpful to start by setting expectations about how to have disagreements. If one or both spouses tend to respond with hostility then creating a foundation for conversation that deescalates conversations can be very helpful. This is a common issue that marriage therapists often support their clients with. Here are some tips to get you started:
1. Develop some basic rules of engagement, like if either one of you says something even a little hurtful then the first one to notice calls for a stop or time out. Then you can take a break from the argument and pray. For those who don’t believe in prayer they can use the time to refocus themselves and consider their spouses perspective. If it's too heated then you can take 10-30 minutes away from each other just to calm down. Praying before you restart the conversation can help you focus on the issues in a new way.
2. Believe the best about your spouse. Misunderstandings frequently occur and can escalate rapidly when we assume that our spouse intended to hurt us. If your spouse is intentionally trying to hurt you then it is best to seek professional support.
3. Take turns speaking. Some couples use a two minute timer. Others use an object that they pass back and forth. If each spouse knows that they will have a turn to speak then they are less likely to be reactive and more likely to listen to what their partner is saying.
4. Don’t keep score. If you’re tempted to keep score then more than likely you’re going to add up the points in a way that gives you the advantage. How shall we keep score? Is it by hours spent working (paid and unpaid work)? Time spent resting? Number of tasks completed? The difficulty of the tasks completed? Is it the amount of stress experienced? This is counter-productive; if both people are trying then you need to look at the problem as a team instead of rivals. If one person isn’t doing their part then it should be enough to say that you need their help without making it a competition about who does more or whose work is of more value.
5. Speak with kindness. If you’re too upset to speak kindly then take a break. Sometimes it’s best to be honest and say, “I’m not feeling very reasonable right now. Let’s take some time to cool down and talk about this later.”
6. Stay Calm. If your spouse says something hurtful stay calm. No matter what they said it will not help for you to react in the same way. Phrases like, "Could you say that with kindness?" Or "Do you want to try that again?" Can be great cues to slow down and think before continuing the discussion.
7. Try Again. If you find yourself thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe that just came out of my mouth.” Apologize. Take some time to calm down if you need it and rethink what you were saying. If you discuss it beforehand you can develop short phrase that mean something longer. Like, “Stop” or “Try Again” could mean, let’s take a break one of us just said something we didn’t mean or was worded too harshly. Using a short phrase makes it easier to stick to during heated moments.
8. “It’s Blue.” During pre-marriage counseling, our pastor told us a story about how him and his wife got into an argument about the name of a paint color. Ultimately they agree that it was blue. “It’s blue,” became a phrase that they would use when they thought they were saying the same thing, but with different words. Sometimes we can get so hung up on the way something is phrased that we fail to recognize our common ground.
9. Get clarification. If you feel like you and your spouse are miles apart on an issue then it can help to ask, “What do you mean when you say _____?” If we assume that someone means something that they aren’t saying then we can get into a conflict for no reason.
I witnessed an online conversation that seemed really heated despite the fact that they seemed to be in agreement by 80-90%. A woman was saying that men should be satisfied if women look presentable and the men were saying women should look attractive. As far as what I could tell from the descriptions these men were giving, they thought a woman who was presentable is attractive, but the reaction of the woman arguing with them was as if these men were suggesting that women should look like supermodels. While some guys think that way, this wasn’t what these guys were talking about. If more questions had been asked instead of assumption made about meaning then they may have recognized more common ground. Questions like, “What do you mean when you use the word attractive?” “What do you mean when you say women shouldn’t need to dress in a way that attracts men?”
10. Disagreeing is okay. You don’t always need to agree. It is okay for someone to have a different opinion. This can even happen without assuming anything bad about the other person. If you frequently get angry that someone isn’t agreeing with you then you may need to ask yourself if you are teachable and open to other opinions.
Consider Reasonable Alternatives
A lot of conflict occurs over issues like household chores and sometimes only two alternatives get considered. He does it, or she does it. However, there are more options to consider and household chores are only an example to give you an idea of how these concepts can be applied.
Everyone helps. If you have kids they should help with chores as their age allows them to, even a two year old can start learning to pick up their toys.
Hiring a maid to come in once a week can help with keeping the house clean. I have a friend who has a maid in once a month and she finds it very helpful.
Simplify the things you can simplify. It isn’t a big deal if you eat a store cooked chicken and veggies out of a can once a week. You don’t need to cook every meal.
Prioritize by deadline. If something can wait till tomorrow then it can wait. If it needs to be done today then that should be at the top of the list.
Decrease the burden. If washing the dishes is burdensome then consider using disposable plates. There have been times when this has been the best option for me and my husband. I think far too much fuss is being given to concern for the environment and it can have a significant negative impact on relationships. Fallen trees take years to decompose in the forest and no one is complaining about that.
Some things don’t get done. Especially with little kids, or households where both spouses work, it can be hard to keep up with all the household chores. If you don’t want to fold your spouse’s laundry, then don’t do it. If you don’t want to wash their dishes then don’t. During my second pregnancy my body was so drained that I often threw up trying to complete housework. I had to learn to live with more mess than I was comfortable with because my body couldn’t handle the work. Everything that needed to get done got done, even if it took longer than we liked.
If you’ve tried counseling:
Was the counselor a good fit? Were you open with the counselor about the type of issues in the relationship? Did you follow through with suggestions? What worked? What didn’t work? How did counseling help you change?