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Watch Your Phraseology!

     Making a marriage work is not always easy, but the following lessons will help you understand that your words and phrases can set the tone for improvement.


     One of the primary mistakes people make in arguments and fights is exaggeration. You might have been the one to take the garbage out for the last month, and feel that the labor in your home is not being equally divided, but to use this expression in an argument is still a misstatement: you never take out the garbage!

     When we use statements with the word “never” in them we instantly open ourselves up for the following argument: Really? Never? What about that whole week when you were in Cincinnati on business? I took the garbage out then! This is a failed argument from the beginning. Your partner is factually correct, and has immediately deflated your argument before you’ve had a chance to air any valid concern, and motivate him to help with sanitation duties more often.

    Do everything you can to eliminate the terms “never” or “always” from your dialogue. (Ah…I just said “everything”—but this is a good place to use an absolute, yes?).


    Other than the use of the all-encompassing “never,” the statement above attacks your partner with the word “you.” Many authors and resources can be given credit for bringing this wise concept to Tom’s and my attention. As soon as the word “you” is uttered, the “you” being spoken to puts up a natural defense. Put these swear words together and an expression like, “You always walk away when I’m talking to you!” is instantly meaningless. Restate it to, “Please don’t walk away while I’m talking.”


     Instead of attacking, “I statements” have a much stronger impact in argument. I believe that if you put into place a couple fighting rules, and practice them regularly you may find the frequency of your arguments dissipating.

     What is an “I statement?” Let’s use your same frustration again to illustrate: for the last several weeks it is your memory that you, alone, have taken responsibility for the garbage. This does not agree with the family responsibility allocation you assumed, agreed upon or understood would exist, so you would like to bring this to the table for discussion.


     Your spouse will be much more open if you word your complaint like this: “I feel like I’ve been taking on more household responsibility lately.” Now your partner may reply with some defense, as is his prerogative, but the argument has begun with less combative dialogue at the outset. Your dialogue might take this course, now:

I feel like I’ve been taking on more household responsibility lately.

Really? What do you mean?

 Well, it seems that you haven’t been around as much to help out in the house.

 I have had so much pressure at work on me lately, and so much overtime.

 I know. But, I am feeling that pressure here, since I’m compensating at home. Do you have any idea when things are going to slow down?

I just need a couple more days to get past this deadline.

 OK. Knowing that this is temporary sure helps. Can you run a couple errands on Saturday, then?

 After a good night’s sleep, I’ll be ready to help out with whatever you need!


Can you imagine that? If you had started out with an attacking “you never” statement instead, the conversation might have rolled along more like this:

You never take out the garbage!

 That’s ridiculous! I took it out for a whole week when you were in Cincinnati on business.

 Oh, come on! That happened ONCE. Give me another one!

 Ok, there was that time when…

 You’re missing my point! Look at this place. You always assume I’ll clean up after you!

 No I don’t. I clean up. I emptied the dishwasher this morning.

 That’s the first time in forever!

  I just haven’t had any time lately…

 You never have any time for me anymore!

     Once absolutes are introduced they tend to continue surfacing. The entire discussion turns into petty one-on-one mudslinging of offense/defense, instead of an open discussion about family responsibilities. Yes, the point is missed, because any macro view of the true problem has not been addressed. By focusing only on a bag and a trashcan that aren’t being managed properly, the grander picture of unbalanced household responsibility gets buried. You know: can’t see the forest for the trees?

     When I heard these rules of fighting for the first time, I had difficulty weaving them into my daily routine and discarding the old methods. I heard a lot of absolutism and attacking language in my childhood. How on earth could I talk in the recommended language without sounding scripted, stilted and fake? How could I really tell Tom how upset I was and what was right about my standpoint without the tone and volume of anger, and the words that I understood accompanied anger?

    That was a tough one for me and it took a long time to hear myself saying “you never” or “you always,” catch myself, rephrase and begin again. Practice certainly is vital in changing this habit.

    Let a great marriage be motivation for you to make the adjustments. Now, you, listen to me! Never use “always” in your marriage!

Copyright © 2008-2015 Lisandrea Wentland

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