August 27


Arguments in Marriage: Say This, Not That

By Jessica Allen

August 27, 2019

If only there were an Easy Button to help us say this, not that. When it comes to arguments in our marriage, we learned the hard way that some words work, and some words just don’t. Having that Easy Button years ago would have saved me so many tears and so much frustration. But I know better now. And when you know better, you do better, right?

Fights don’t just come out of nowhere in our marriage.  They build up like a pressure cooker – one little comment and one little undressed wound at a time.  Pile enough of them together and POW!  We’re yelling at each other in the backyard, or even worse, snipping at each other in public.  (This is the number one way to make your friends and family and maybe even complete strangers feel super uncomfortable.)

Navigating arguments in marriage

Though it may not feel like it in the moment, we have choices in arguments in marriage.  Choices to say or not say, do or not do.  The problem is that once the pressure cooker explodes, it’s hard to think rationally.  At the first point of anger – usually brought on by fear, disappointment, frustration, or embarrassment – your brain starts a chain reaction that floods your system with cortisol, which literally destroys your brain cells, inhibiting good judgment and impairing your short-term memory.  This is also where “fight or flight” kicks in – one of our most basic human instincts.  (Click here for a cool run-down and infographic on Your Brain on Anger.)

And that’s just YOU.   Your spouse experiences all this brain junk too when they’re angry.  To simplify the science jargon, once we’re enveloped in unchecked anger, we become unpredictably mentally unstable.  Even simpler: we turn into Crazy People.  This is mostly how I feel when I’m over the anger line: 

Crazy Cruella De Ville | Anger | Angry | Arguments in marriage
She’s a treat, ain’t she? I do love that even at lunatic-status, her lipstick game is still on point.

Imagine two of these people facing off in a fight. This is not the ideal starting gate for resolving arguments in marriage. 

Related post: Say What You Mean

Good news

We’ve found some good tools for arguments in our marriage that help us when we’ve lost our marbles. 

If you practice them when your mind is clear, it’s infinitely easier to recall them when you’re seeing red.  Here are our top 10 game-changing phrases to de-escalate arguments in marriage. (pinnable infographic at the bottom!)

Say this, not that

Say this: I’m sorry

Be specific. I’m sorry I hurt you, I’m sorry I said that, I’m sorry I did that, I’m sorry I made you feel that way.  Name what you did and own your part in it. It helps heal the other person when they know you know what you did to hurt them. (Sometimes you don’t. Ask for help to understand.)

Not that: I’m sorry you feel that way OR I’m sorry if I made you feel like that

The magic of an apology is that you are accepting accountability and responsibility for what you did.  Both of these phrases – I’m sorry you and I’m sorry if – imply the other person is out of line for being upset, and that you don’t really believe you contributed to their pain.  They’re cop-out phrases and we’re all better than that.

Say this: Please

Not that: *bark any order*
*assume it’s their “job” to do it*

Saying please is the simplest way to show respect.  And it’s the shortest, easiest word to add to your request.

Say this: Thank you

Not that: *silence*
*believing you deserved it*
*assuming they know you’re grateful*

People need to be acknowledged for their effort and care.  Especially your spouse.  Thank them for the hard work they do, and the little tasks they take off your plate.  Nothing makes someone feel seen and heard like gratitude, genuinely and explicitly expressed.

Say this: I’m listening

Not that: *anything else other than looking your spouse in the eye and listening*

This seems so easy but it is becoming a lost art.  Put down the screens, zero in your focus, and actively listen to what your spouse is saying.  DO NOT PLAN YOUR RESPONSE as they are talking.  You’ll miss what they’re really saying, and if you are angry you’ll subconsciously try to one-up them in your reply.  Slow down and listen to understand rather than listen to respond.

Say this: You were right

Not that: “Well, I thought…”
“I only did it because…”

Admitting that someone else was right does not give your power away.  Humble yourself, acknowledge the other person, and don’t feel any less of a human because they were right.  You’ll probably get to be right next time.

Say this: I was wrong

Not this: “I did it because…”
“Well, last time YOU…”

Own your mistake.  Don’t deflect your misstep by blaming your spouse or calling them out on one of their related failures.  We don’t allow our children to do that to each other, so let’s not do it to our adult spouses either. 

Say this: Forgive me

“I was wrong.  Can you please forgive me?”  This is the most underutilized yet most powerful secret weapon in your marriage wizard bag. 

Not that: “I SAID I was sorry.”

Just because you say you are sorry doesn’t mean your spouse’s feelings are unhurt or they’re instantly happy again.  Especially if you snarky-say it like that.  Forgiveness is a choice and asking for it is important – it shows you understand what you did to cause the other person pain, and that you respect them enough to ask for their grace.  This requires massive amounts of humility and it’s hard.  It’s why the Bible tells us we have to forgive seventy times seven (and therefore be willing to ask for forgiveness just as much). 

Related post: Quit the Blame Game

Say this: I understand

Not that: “You shouldn’t feel that way!”
*any version of trying to fix the problem without being asked to do so*

Sometimes the most well-intentioned encouragement (“You’re not dumb!  You shouldn’t feel bad about that! Etc.) invalidates our spouses and shuts them down.  Did they have a bad day?  Don’t minimize or dismiss it.  Rather: listen, respond kindly, and fight the urge to fix it.  99.9% of the time, our spouses just want us to listen and understand. 

Say this: I respect you

Not that: *any fired-off complaint, insult, criticism, or sarcastic comment*

You are the most important person your spouse counts on for support and respect.  This goes for both men and women but double a man’s need for respect from his wife.  It’s how he is wired (whether you like it or not) so if you don’t truly respect what he’s doing or saying in the moment, affirm what you do respect in him as a human being.  Acknowledging what you do respect in him will help him stay pointed in the right direction, and it will also help you from picking him apart.

Say this: I love you

Not that: *withholding that statement because you are angry*

You may be livid but never let there be a doubt in your spouse’s mind (or yours) that you still love each other. 

In our darkest days we still slept in the same bed yet inched as far away as humanly possible.  Often it was a long silent standoff after the lights went out but not once did we ever go to sleep without someone caving and muttering “I love you” first.  Even when we didn’t feel it.

Because sometimes love isn’t a feeling.  It’s a choice.  A really hard choice you have to make a hundred times a day.  It requires patience, forgiveness, grace, selflessness, and self-control.  All the fruits of the spirit, actually. Especially when you’re in the heat of an argument in your marriage.  Little by little, all that practice of “say this, not that” will start changing the trajectory of your conversations and therefore hopefully diffuse some arguments in your marriage before they even start.

Choose better words and you will grow a better marriage.  Because where your words lead, your actions will follow. 

Here’s to some better “fights” in the future. 



PS: Need some inspiration? Check out our story of choosing love when it felt impossible.

marriage arguments | conflict management | say this not that

Jessica Allen

About the author

Jessica is a writer, musician, entrepreneur, wife, and mom. Jessica's mission is to write "real" - shining light into the dark places of the tough stuff we all experience. She and her husband Jack live in Houston, Texas and have weathered the storms of grief, infant loss, adoption, and a marriage that almost fell apart. Jessica and Jack have four children: LJ in heaven, Grace, Jackson, and Elisha.

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