Arguing with your spouse might be one of the most universal experiences on the planet. And equally common are the problems that emerge from the way we argue with one another.
I know you’ve had this experience before, where the actual problem is quite manageable: the REAL challenge comes up when you get tangled up in the argument and don’t know how to move through it in a respectful, constructive way.
People say things they don’t mean, act out of defensiveness, feelings are hurt, and more problems are piled on top of the already-stressed couple.
Communication is one of those things that we think we should have dialed-in, but no one actually teaches us anything about it. I bet more people have heard of trigonometry than “I-statements”!
So let’s start by exploring the mistakes you make while arguing with your spouse. They should jump out at you if you’re willing to be honest with yourself! Once you’re aware of your patterns, you’ll know where to focus your energy for change.
Here are the most common communication mistakes I’ve noticed with couples:
Arguing With Your Spouse? The 18 Most Common Communication Mistakes Couples Make
Most people are solely focused on getting their point across that they don’t let the other person finish their thought. This is probably the most common yet detrimental mistake that couples make. When you interrupt someone, you essential convey that what you have to say is more important than what they have to say. And although you might actually feel this way, it’s just not true.
You need to share the air time (meaning don’t hog it either!) and make sure you give each other space to express yourself.
A great strategy is to ask if the other person has finished their thought. Just make sure you don’t say it like you did when you were a teen… “Are you done yet???” Instead, it’s more like: “I want to make sure you had a chance to fully explain yourself, is it okay if I go now?”
2. Speaking Loudly or Yelling
Most of us have been there, and most of us also know that raising our voices is not the healthiest way to communicate. It’s actually pretty aggressive, can be intimidating, and is generally unproductive during an argument. Sure, it might help you release some anger, but it also escalates an argument pretty quickly: when someone attacks you, what do you want to do? Attack back, right? The last thing a person wants to do when someone is yelling at them is to work together, be respectful, or understanding.
So catch yourself when you raise your voice and see if you can turn it down a notch. And instead of matching your partner when they yell, you might try just pointing out that the conversation is getting too loud and you’d rather take a step back. It’s okay to take a break, cool down, and return to the conversation later.
3. Attacking Character
You’ve probably heard the parenting advice to focus on your child’s behaviour rather than their person or character. For example, you might say “you are acting really mean/aggressive/naughty right now” rather than “you are a mean/aggressive/naughty little girl!” Notice the difference? You want your child to understand it’s what they did, not who they are that’s concerning to you.
Well, somehow couples forget to apply this subtlety when communicating with one another. You need to be specific about the action, behaviour, or comment that is upsetting rather than generalizing to some kind of character flaw.
So for instance, you might say: “I’m annoyed that you didn’t take out the garbage this morning after you said that you would” rather than, “You’re so lazy, you don’t want to do anything around here to help out!” The first statement is more specific, fair, and much easier for your partner to digest.
Let’s try turning the table: Imagine if your partner said, “You are really irresponsible and careless with money” or “I’m feeling worried that you spent that much at the grocery store, can we talk about our budget sometime soon?” The first is a character judgement, the second is focused on a specific concern and much more collaborative.
4. Shutting Down The Conversation
Sometimes people want to shut down a conversation if they don’t like how it’s going. To be clear, it’s totally appropriate to take a break from the discussion, or to refuse to engage with a person when they are being aggressive or verbally abusive.
However, it’s unfair to prematurely shut down a conversation when the other person isn’t ready to. Another common pitfall is to just avoid engaging in the conversation to begin with. If you or your partner have genuine concerns that need to be discussed, it’s essential that there is an opportunity to do so. Of course it’s uncomfortable (especially if you’re in the wrong), but it’s imperative to keep communication open if you want to have thriving relationship.
5. Name Calling or Put Downs
Many people don’t realize that name calling is actually verbal abuse. Yes, it’s abusive! It’s intention is to hurt, harm, and control another person. It is never acceptable to verbally abuse any other person, including your partner.
If you find yourself saying things you wish you hadn’t, then take responsibility. Apologize. Talk about what you will do differently next time. And seek professional counselling if you need help getting your anger under control. We all get angry, and we can all learn healthy ways to work through anger.
6. Invalidating Feelings
Ahh this one.
The crux of good (or bad) communication. The rule that I stand by is simply “feelings are facts.” What I mean by this is that you (and you partner) are entitled to your emotions. Your feelings are not up for debate. You can’t be convinced out of them, or told they aren’t true.
Your feelings are your emotional reaction to a situation. You own them, they are yours and yours only. It’s incredibly upsetting when someone tells you your feelings are wrong, inappropriate, and they need to change.
Couples must accept that they can have different feelings about the same situation, and that both are true. You might feel hurt, but you partner might not have been hurt in that same situation, but it doesn’t discount the fact that you are having a hurt emotional experience. That’s YOUR experience.
See what I’m saying here?
We invalidate one another when we say things like:
“Oh, you’re crying right now?”
“How can you be mad about that!?”
“You cannot be jealous about that!”
Instead, couples should focus on gaining a better understanding of what lead their partner to that particular emotional experience, stating that they would never have intended for them to feel this way. It’s all about working toward understanding, and allowing space for one another to feel however the heck they feel!
Feelings are facts, my friends.
7. Swearing or Other Aggressive Language
Just stop swearing. It’s rude. Mean. Aggressive. Find a way to actually articulate what you’re angry about instead. See #5.
8. Bringing Up Past Issues
There are times when it might be appropriate to identify patterns or certain issues that keep arising. For example, you might have made a request several times and your partner continues to ignore your request. In this case, it’s appropriate to say something like, “You know, I’ve asked you about this several times before and I’m really hoping you’re hear me this time.”
Couples get into trouble when they bring up past issues that have already been addressed, and they are used as ammunition during an argument. In general, it’s unfair to hold something over your partners head, digging it back up any time you need to fight back.
For instance, couple’s argue about money a lot. Let’s say that last year you charged $1000 on your joint credit card and lied to your partner about it. After they found out, you had a big argument, worked through it, committed to not doing the same thing again. Now a year later, you have an argument and they bring up the credit card issue again.
There are times where this is simply not fair. Avoid bringing up past issues just to add weight to your side of the argument. And further, don’t use a past discretion as a reason to make a similar mistake later on (“well, you spent a grand last year, whatever, I just did the same thing, how can you be mad?”).
This just launches a never-ending retaliation cycle and isn’t conducive for a healthy relationship.
9. Refusing To Take Responsibility
It always takes two to argue. Always. In any relationships, there is something that you can take responsibility for. I typically encourage couples to consider what role they play in the problem, and what part they can take responsibility for.
If you truly feel like you’ve done nothing wrong, then consider what you can do to make the conflict go a little better. Can you change your tone? Ask more thoughtful questions? Be more compassionate?
People generally want the other person to be at fault, but this is not usually how it works in reality. Put your pride aside and take on some responsibility.
And for those times when you are clearly in the wrong, make sure you aren’t making excuses or blaming others. The fastest way out is to just own your mistakes, apologize, and focus your energy on what to do next.
10. Avoiding Eye Contact
Eye contact can be extremely vulnerable, particularly during conflict. Think of young kids (or even dogs, dare I make the comparison!) when they are in trouble…they usually turn their gaze down, and avoid eye contact.
Knowing that it’s normal to want to disengage when you’re arguing with your spouse, just know that connecting with one another will usually help. So instead of avoiding connection, making eye contact can bring back your humanness, remind you of your connection, and also signify that you are present, listening, and respecting your partner.
If it feels impossible to do this, try naming it: “It’s really hard for me to look at you right now, I’m so upset.“
11. Disrespectful Body Language
Rolling your eyes. Throwing your hands in the air in exasperation. Irritated expressions. Schlumping down into your chair (Yes, schlumping). These are all non-verbal cues that send pretty clear messages back and forth.
Try to be mindful of what your body is saying and consider whether this is the message you actually want to send. Admittedly, sometimes it’s easier to show with your body that you’re irritated than to assertively say, “I’m so annoyed right now, can we talk about this?” The choice is yours, but makes sure you are aware that body language is powerful!
12. Is Always “Right”
There is sometimes a dynamics between couples where one person always seems to be “right”. No matter what the argument is about, that same person comes out feeling like they haven’t done anything wrong and the other one is to blame.
Usually what happens is even when that “right” person is actually in the wrong, they tend to blame their partner for being sensitive, touchy, jealous, always angry, or other character attacks that shift of focus away from themselves.
For example: maybe your spouse stayed out late drinking with his friends (again) after he said he’d be home early. When you address this issue, he shifts the focus toward how “you are always coming down on him.“
No one is always right. There absolutely must be some room for the other person’s opinion and experience to matter. And ultimately, a successful relationship isn’t about winning or being right or wrong, but rather, it’s about getting through challenges by prioritizing your relationships rather that you as individuals.
13. Using Exaggerated Language
This is a classic mistake that I think we’ve all made, and it goes a little something like this:
“Why do you always act like you’re annoyed”
“You never show me affection!”
“You’re always picking fights with me!”
The problem with these kinds of statements is that they simply cannot be true. There’s no way someone is always annoyed, never ever shows any affection, or always picks fights. Exaggeration is usually used to express strong emotions, but it typically creates defensiveness for the recipient.
When someone uses this kind of language to me, for instance, my first reaction is to search for exceptions to what they said. “Whatever, I wasn’t annoyed this morning…I kissed you last night!…and you are the one to pick fights with me!” Clearly, it’s just not conducive to creative problem solving.
14. Refusing to Discuss The Issue
You know when you really want to talk about something and your parter just shuts you down? Not fun, is it? Refusing to discuss something that the other person thinks is important is quite simply unfair, and creates resentment.
Also, it’s invalidating to demonstrate that you aren’t interested in what your partner is bothered by. If it’s concerning to them, it should be concerning to you as well (simply because it’s on their mind!). Give one another the respect of at least listing, and more ideally, discussing the topic at hand.
15. Unwilling To Empathize (Step in Other’s Shoes)
I believe that one of our basic needs is to be understood and accepted by those we love. And likewise, one of the most valuable acts we can do for our spouse is to work at understanding and accepting them as they are.
It is incredibly difficult to empathize (show your understanding) when you’re arguing with your spouse. In fact, usually you don’t want to understand them at all, and you’d rather just keep talking about your side of things (it’s normal, we all do this!).
But this is a big mistake! While showing your understanding is hard, it’s likely the most valuable thing you can do when you’re arguing. You can do this by reflecting how you think they feel, or paraphrasing the issue.
For example, you might say, “okay, so I can hear you are really angry about the way I spoke to you this morning…you didn’t like the way I was talking to you and you felt like I was being harsh.“
Once you paraphrase, don’t defend yourself! Don’t add the “…but the reason I did that was …” That basically erases whatever you said before.
Instead, consider adding something like “…and that is certainly not how I intended to speak to you or to make you feel.” Once someone takes the brave step to empathize with the other, the energy immediately begins to settle down. It’s quite incredible, really!
16. Unwilling To Think As A Team (“Me” Instead of “We”)
To have a successful relationship, you and your parter need to approach the world as a team. Sure, you are both unique individuals and most certainly should maintain your separate selves all the way through.
However, a conscious effort to prioritize “us” rather than “me” is really important.
So for example, let’s imagine that you argue about who get’s more time out with friends (and a break from the kids). It’s easy to get into a “me vs. you” conflict where you are only focused on your own needs. However, when you consider what is best for you as a couple, you might be able to align a little bit better and feel less attacked.
Maybe you acknowledge that you both need time away, and that you really want the other person to feel like they have enough social time. Once you have a united goal, you can get creative and work together to figure out a solution (rather than continue to argue about who has it worse).
17. Making Assumptions
No matter how well you know your spouse, it’s dangerous territory to make assumptions about their decisions, behaviours, thoughts, or intentions. You don’t actually know what’s going on for them, and you likely don’t understand them better than they understand themselves.
Instead, try to maintain an attitude of curiosity rather than assuming you already know. Ask questions, wonder, genuinely show your curiosity and be open to what your spouse has to say.
18. Getting Distracted
This is a big issue in this digital era! Couples all-too-often pick up their phones during an argument. Yikes!
Don’t respond to a text, call someone, or pick up your phone to see what the alert was. And by no means surf your socials mid-discussion. That’s a pretty clear way to say that you’d rather be doing a lot of other things (like wasting your time on the internet) than talk to your partner.
And to be honest, sometimes this might be true! I’d rather look at beautiful photos than argue! But always keep the long view in mind and prioritize your relationships, especially during hard times.
Which communication mistakes are you making when you’re arguing with your spouse? And what other’s would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments which ones resonates most!
And remember that good communication is a skill, meaning that we actually need to learn and practice how to do it well! If you find yourself arguing with your spouse more than you’d like, use this checklist to figure out where you are going wrong and focus you energy there!
All my best,