A person could spend all day on the internet reading articles with titles like “Top 10 Ways to Avoid Conflict with Your Spouse” or “How to Have a Good Argument with Your Partner.” There are thousands of books available for purchase on how to keep a relationship alive. But at the end of the day, how many of those skills are you able to implement in the heat of the moment? How well are you able to remember those 10 tips in the middle of a fight?
With that in mind that I suggest you try one simple preventative measure next time you sense that you may be getting into a fight or an argument with your partner. Simply avoid any causal explanation for your feelings that target your loved one. Easier said than done? Yes, of course! Try this: skip any statements that sound like “I’m angry because you didn’t do what you said you would” or “I said that because you made me feel like I didn’t matter to you.”
Of course, it may be true that you’re feeling hurt because your partner said something objectively hurtful. But consider that they may not be able to receive and process that comment, while they’re still feeling angry. And consider that your emotion of “hurt” may not be entirely their fault. In general, it can be dangerous to go through life believing that our feelings are a result of other people’s actions.
At some time in our lives, we’ve all heard someone say — perhaps with the best intentions — “when you said that, it made me feel sad.” Likely, this person is seeking to reach a resolution with you regarding their felt grievance. But, doesn’t this statement communicate the message that you are, at least in part, responsible for their emotions?
Imagine another scenario. A mother says to her 10-year-old daughter: “honey, when you don’t get all As in school, it makes mommy sad.” Most people would consider this emotional manipulation. The mother is teaching her daughter that emotions come as a result of measurable performance.
In both situations, one member of the dyad is explaining the presence of an emotion based on the actions of the other member of the dyad. So then, is it possible that the statement “when you said that, it made me feel sad” is emotionally manipulative?
It’s likely not a controversial statement to say that emotions are complex things and that the cause of a given emotion is multi-faceted. If this is true, let’s be careful to avoid making statements that assign one-dimensional causality of an emotion to our partners.
The connection between destructive behaviors during relationship conflict interactions and eventual relationship dissolution has been well-researched. In general, it’s good advice to avoid shouting, insulting, or berating your partner. And of course, it’s good advice to compliment, listen to, and patiently communicate with your partner. But these skills are difficult to develop and implement when your heart is racing, blood is rushing to your face, and your partner is raising their voice. So, try to cut the typical course of a fight off at the start: avoid placing responsibility for your emotions onto your partner.
Perhaps most importantly, speaking to your partner in this manner reminds them and yourself that you have no responsibility to apologize for your feelings. Providing your partner with a clear expectation for them is both respectful and loving. Think of it like setting boundaries — another useful skill in relationship building. When you communicate your expectation for respectful treatment (using your definition of what that looks like), you act in a manner that demonstrates respect to your partner: allowing them to make their own choices using knowledge about the boundary you’ve set.
Next time a disagreement arises, or you sense a fight developing, try explaining your perspective without placing any “emotional responsibility” on your partner. Instead of “you pissed me off when you disrespected me” try the much more matter of fact “I think it’s fair to expect to be treated with respect and the actions you took did not match with my definition of respect.” Instead of “when you’re always late to pick me up, it makes me feel worthless,” try “I’d like to ask if you could be on time more consistently because my standards for a partner include that they treat me as a priority in their life.” Broadly, it boils down to: “Here are my expectations, here is your behavior. To me, there is a mismatch there and I won’t be satisfied with that until there is a change.” Though it may be difficult to think of your emotions in these terms, imagine the payoff if you’re able to prevent a fight before it even starts!
Birditt, K. S., Brown, E., Orbuch, T. L., & McIlvane, J. M. (2010). Marital conflict behaviors and implications for divorce over 16 years. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(5), 1188-1204. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00758.x