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Look past the words…


man and woman wearing brown leather jackets

Photo by Vera Arsic on

Every couple argues periodically. Two different people can’t agree on everything all the time, that’s just not natural. But not every couple fights in the same manner. Couples seem to fall into one of two categories when it comes to conflict.

The first group find themselves being 100% in the moment, focused on the conflict itself. Every word that is uttered becomes evaluated and responses are automatically generated. Tensions and anger mount as words grow increasingly harsher. This group is subconsciously keeping score and the primary goal is to win the argument at whatever cost.

The odd thing about this group is they often find themselves stumbling into conflict without intention of doing so. A husband makes a comment that is perceived as being offensive by his wife and it is game on. While his intent was never to incite his wife, he suddenly finds himself defending his words and evening the score by pointing out her shortcomings. These are the types of fights that race from “zero to sixty” in only a few seconds.

For the sake of conflict avoidance, couples that find themselves in this situation become gun-shy. “I’d rather not say anything at all than say something that will set them off…”, becomes the attitude. While not starting an argument with your spouse may be a good thing, the deterioration of communication quickly becomes a new issue that just further erodes the overall relationship.

The second group, is less focused on the moment at hand and more focused on a longer-term vision and commitment that they have made with their spouse. In this case the husband may still make an insensitive remark, but instead of jumping to conclusions about his motivations, the wife may pause and ask, “That came off as really hurtful, what are you trying to say?” This approach shifts from accusation to clarification. It gives the husband the opportunity to rephrase his question or comment in a less offensive manner. Communication lines remain open in this case, plus he has been given constructive feedback in terms of his word (or tone) choice.

So how does this second group work? It takes a commitment toward long-term growth and success. It takes the ability to look past specific words and look at the heart of the person who is saying them. In my own marriage, my wife knows I love her unconditionally. I share this with her regularly. But (more often that I’d like to admit) I am guilty of saying stupid things, or saying okay things in a stupid way. There was a time early in our relationship where my words would act like a match near a powder keg. But today my wife knows that there’s no part of me that would ever want to intentionally hurt her. So, when my words sting, she gives me the opportunity to back up and try again. That attitude works both ways (though she says far fewer stupid things than I do).

The next time your spouse says something to you that gets you fired up, take a deep breath and ask yourself “Do they really want to hurt me with this?” If the answer is “yes”, then you are in a caustic relationship and need to seek professional help before it’s too late. This will not get better on its own.

But, if the answer is “no”, offer them a chance to restate their point, letting them know of the potential offense. They will typically welcome the chance for a do-over. This habit becomes easier and easier over time, until it is just second nature. This approach will not eliminate conflict from your marriage, but it will prevent long term damage from occurring.

Look beyond the words spoken, to the heart of the person saying them. Focus not on the moment, but on the long term goals of the marriage. You’ll be amazed at the difference this simple change of perspective can make.

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