Spousal Relationships and Tough Conversations

Couples Counseling  – Matone Counseling & Testing  –  Tough Conversations

Spousal relationships are hard.

We have heard adages to this reality our whole lives at weddings, anniversaries, and even casually at the dinner table on Sunday night. This is because there is a lot to navigate in spousal relationships. The stress of finances, intimacy, parenting, growing old, work-life balance, you name it, takes its toll on these relationships sometimes. COVID-19 itself has brought about increasing relationship stressors, with the need to manage entire households working from home, virtual school for children, and changing health restrictions. Not to mention access to once-utilized decompression outlets, no longer being viable options for relaxation (Savage, 2020).

So how do we navigate those moments where we are frustrated with our spouse; Where raising our voice might seem momentarily enticing, but we know it will not nurture our relationship, or improve our connectedness? When you find yourself frustrated with your spouse, try some of the following, and see if they help!

Tip One:

    • Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. You statements can put our partner on the defensive. Such statements also may come across as accusatory. Instead of starting your statements with “you” try starting them with “I.” This lets your partner know how you are feeling, without immediately making them feel defensive.
      • Not This – You Statement: Tim, you don’t put away your dirty dishes.
      • Try This – I Statement: Tim, I feel as though I have been putting away a lot of your dirty dishes lately.

Tip Two:

  • Hit the Pause Button – Take a Break Before you Talk
    • There is a saying in the therapy world, coined by Irvin Yalom, a very successful therapist who wrote many books on the therapeutic process – “strike when the iron is cold” (Yalom, 2002, 121) Yalom’s phrase originally was meant to say that while a client is deeply immersed in a situation, or feeling, it might not be the best time to bring up the problems it is creating for the client. Rather, it might be better to wait until the person has calmed down to have that conversation. The same can be applied to when we are angry at our spouse – raising our voice or passive aggressively responding to someone in the heat of the moment might not lead to the most desired result. Thus, “strike when the iron is cold” (Yalom, 2002, 121). Give yourself and your spouse some time to cool down before you engage in a conversation about the issue. For some people, this might take five minutes, and for others, it might take an hour or a day. Communicate with your spouse on this. Set a time where you both can sit down and talk about the disagreement.
      • Not This – Raise your voice in the moment
      • Try This – Tim, I feel like we are both pretty upset right now. How about we both take some time to think about how we feel and calm down a bit before we discuss this. Could we discuss it after the kids go to bed at 8 PM?

Tip Three:

  • Consider what really bothered you about the situation or encounter with your spouse – It might not be that the dishes weren’t done, it might be that you feel disrespected by your spouse when they leave dishes out, expecting you to clean them. Introspection about the reason for your frustration with your spouse can lead to more enriching conversations about how you feel, as well as can give your spouse the opportunity to better understand what you value, and why you felt disrespected by the encounter. This can, in turn, help you create more accurate ways of mitigating the conflict moving forward.

Tip Four:

  • Try to see the other side of things – Sometimes when we react abruptly to things, we are responding only to our perspective on a situation. We are not taking into account how the other person may feel or what factored into their decision making. If we take the time to see their side, then it might help us approach the conversation from a more neutral place. Ask yourself why your spouse may have approached the situation in the way they did. Were they responding to other stressors? With this, if you cannot see the other side of the argument – ask! Ask your spouse why they chose to do what they did. Keep an open mind, it might not be because of the reason you had assumed.
    • Not This – Jumping to conclusions about the intention behind an action
    • Try This – Tim, I have been thinking about why putting the dishes away is something you have been struggling with. Could it be that you are really tired when you get home from work and feel as though you need a break?   
      • Or – I have been thinking about why putting away the dishes is something you have been struggling with. Could you talk to me about why you think this task has been difficult?

Tip Five:

  • Compromise and Create a Plan for the Future – A concept that can be hard for us sometimes is compromise. It can be difficult for us to meet in the middle, especially if we feel like an argument or conflict was more the result of our spouses’ actions than our own. However, relationships are a two-way street that requires the effort of both parties, not just one. Consider what compromise would look like in the conflict. How can you meet your spouse in the middle, while also respecting your own boundaries? When you and your spouse decide on what this compromise looks like, set a goal together. Setting a unified goal is a way for both parties to illustrate that they are going to work to mitigate the issue in the future.
    1. Not This – Coming to a resolution on the issue for your spouse, or without your spouse.
    2. Try This – Tim, I now understand why it is hard for you to put away your dishes. Let’s try something new. How about we alternate days of doing the dishes, that way we both hold responsibility but have some downtime. Could we alternate starting on Monday?

Tip Six:

  • RememberYour Feelings are Valid – If you are feeling angry, frustrated, etc. this emotion is valid and you should honor it! You can do this by setting aside time to journal, meditate, etc. and explore why this feeling arose. Being a source of strength for yourself and acknowledging that your feelings are valid can be empowering and perhaps provide you with the sense of peace or comfort you were looking for all along. It can also bring you into a mind space where you can likely communicate with your spouse more effectively.

Relationships are hard, and conflict may occur, but if we use these skills and keep treating our partner with empathy and respect at the forefront of our communication style, we can work to mitigate conflict by being intentional and showing each other positive regard.

I hope these tips help you and the ones you love to communicate with each other!


Yalom, I. (2002). The Gift of Therapy. Harper Collins Publishers. Print.

Savage, M. (2020, December 6). Why the Pandemic is Causing Spikes in Break-Ups and 

Divorces. BBC Online. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20201203-why-the-pandemic-is-causing-spikes-in-break-ups-and-divorces.

Abigail Thielemann is a staff writer and clinical intern at Matone Counseling and Testing. Abigail received her Bachelor’s in Political Science from Davidson College and is in the process of completing her Master’s in Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.