We’ve all been in situations where we’ve had to bite our tongues, times when we’ve felt justified in being angry—so much so that we surprise ourselves with the verbiage that pops into our heads. We want the other person to get an earful of our displeasure. Even through the haze of anger, though, we understand that we should resist giving voice to everything we’re thinking. Because, after all, common wisdom dictates that there are some things that, once they’re said, you can’t merely “unsay.”
But what happens when the emotional turmoil gets the better of you and you cross the line with your spouse/partner? What happens when you say something you can’t take back?
Couple Fighting: When Words Wound
“How can I retract something I said? I really didn’t mean it, but he doesn’t believe me now. My words feel like they were said with indelible ink…”
This was the question posed to me at a couples’ workshop awhile back (the workshop was on effective communication in marriage). It was several years ago, actually, but the question obviously stayed with me. I think it’s an issue that many couples face, since, after all, every couple (and every human!) faces stress and, at times, extreme stress. There will be times when we find ourselves losing perspective and taking out the stress on our mate (sometimes unconsciously). Once the cringe-worthy words are out of our mouths, the important thing is what we do next.
Before we go any further let me qualify some things: In no way am I condoning horribly hurtful comments; I’m not giving a free pass to inconsiderate behavior and excusing it in the name of stress. Rather, I’m trying to provide a context for why, in the instance of a couple where the individuals love, value, and respect each other, one (or both) individual might knowingly say something akin to a verbal jab below the belt that they later wish they could take back.
(I’m not talking about a marriage or relationship where the deliberate, ongoing intention exists of hurting the other, or perhaps where one partner is seeking a way out of the relationship. I’m talking about loving unions where both individuals want to be in the marriage or relationship.)
Back to the couples communication workshop:
Suzanne approached me during the lunch break, after the other couples had left the room. Her husband Theo stayed in his seat, appearing uncomfortable.
“Dr. Nicastro,” she said, “I know the topic of the workshop is effective couples communication, but I have to ask you about the opposite. What happens when you say things you know you shouldn’t? Can you ever take them back?”
Suzanne asked Theo’s permission to tell me the story (which he gave, though he still looked vaguely mortified). They had recently moved two states over, and the move was stressful. Indeed, all moves are stressful, even ones where nothing out of the ordinary occurs. Moving is considered one of the most stressful things people can experience, even when they are excited about relocating.
“Maybe so,” Suzanne said at my attempts to reassure her of this fact, “but I said some terrible things to Theo. I’ve been trying to take them back ever since, but he’s still hurt.”
Here’s what happened that led to Suzanne’s self-defined “verbal assault”:
She’d been taking care of all the “paperwork sort of stuff” associated with the move (i.e., change of address, transferring utilities, reserving the moving truck), and Theo was handling most of the packing.
“I don’t consider myself a materialistic person,” Suzanne said. “I’ve never been into shopping, don’t have any collections. But I do have one possession that means a lot to me—something my great-grandmother left me in her will, a beautiful ceramic swan. It’s one-of-a-kind. My great-grandfather made it for her before they married.”
Rather than box that up with the rest of their belongings to put on the truck (they’d hired movers to load the U-Haul), they thought it would be best to give that piece extra attention (and extra packing material) and put it in their car (which Suzanne would be driving to their new home while Theo drove the truck). “I saw the careful way that Theo was packing our everyday dishes (which I had no sentimental attachment to), so I knew the swan would be in good hands.”
And because Suzanne was so confident that Theo would take care of it, she promptly put it out of her mind and turned back to the myriad of other details involved with moving.
No couple is immune to stress. No couple.
On moving day, Theo and Suzanne’s expected 8-hour drive was fraught with inconveniences (the car got a flat tire, the GPS didn’t know about a road closure and they subsequently got lost trying to navigate around it, the truck overheated). Eight hours stretched into fourteen. They got to their new apartment worn-out and exhausted and hungry and relieved. But no matter the sense of relief at finally arriving at their destination in one piece, the stress of the day was still with them, as a residue of sorts.
So when Suzanne went to the trunk of the car to get the air mattress so they could get some sleep, and when she saw the swan back there, partially (“carelessly”) swaddled in bubble wrap, and with a broken wing, she felt like the world was crashing down on her.
“I felt like he wasn’t taking care of me. I know that’s not true, but that’s how it felt. The one thing I counted on him to do, and it didn’t matter enough for him to do it well.”
She stormed up the two flights to the apartment in a fury, her exhaustion shoved aside to make room for rage. She held the swan in one hand, the severed wing in the other. Theo looked horrified. He felt awful. He’d meant to get a heavy-duty box just for the swan, but he waited too long and got caught up in some last-minute details with the bulk of the move. He’d forgotten that all he’d done was loosely wrap the piece in a sheet of bubble wrap.
He started to say how sorry he was, but Suzanne didn’t give him the chance.
“You’ve never cared about me,” she said to him. “I can’t believe I didn’t see it before now. It’s so obvious.”
Theo started to protest, but, again, Suzanne’s hurt and dismay pushed everything else aside. “The one thing that I said means a lot to me and it ends up broken. I’m sure all your stuff is in one piece, though. You don’t love me. You never loved me! I need to be with someone who loves me genuinely, who doesn’t toss my heart into the trunk of a car without another thought.”
“What are you saying?” Theo asked.
“That I think you’re in this marriage just for you. That you don’t truly love me.”
“How can you say that, Sue?”
She just looked down at the broken swan in her hands and sobbed and sobbed. “How could I not?”
After her fury had been spent, and when she was able to put things into perspective a bit more, Suzanne got really scared when Theo wouldn’t “come back” to her. “He just kept saying that I said things I couldn’t take back,” she recalled. “He said we’d have to process everything, but that he didn’t have the energy to do it that night. And when I said I was hurt about the swan, but that I overreacted and didn’t really mean that he hadn’t loved me, he said he wasn’t so sure I didn’t mean it. He said we’d have to talk about our marriage. That terrified me. I didn’t really want to end things! Not at all!”
Once she started to scale back down the mountain of intense conflict and realized the enormity of what she’d said, Suzanne kept asking Theo if he was all right (“I desperately wanted him to say he was all right, that he realized I hadn’t meant what I said, that he forgave me for saying it”).
But Theo couldn’t tell her that he was all right, because he wasn’t. Not in that moment. He was hurt. Incredibly wounded. (He was still at the top of that mountain of relationship conflict where he felt Suzanne had abruptly stuck him—he went from feeling sheepish and awful about his oversight of the swan to feeling blindsided by all that she’d said.) She needed to give him the time and the space to process it all, to feel the hurt, to decide where to go from there. It was unreasonable to expect him to be able to rescue her from her regret at saying what she said.
Couple Fighting: it’s best to stay on topic, but it doesn’t always work that way…
If Suzanne had stayed on topic (being justifiably angry at Theo for dropping the ball about something that meant a lot to her), the argument would’ve gone a different way. But after she took it in the direction she had, making sweeping statements about Theo as a husband and questioning his love for her, Theo was the one who was hurt.
In the weeks since the argument, Theo was struggling with whether to believe Suzanne “after the fact or during the fact.” He explained: “She couldn’t have been telling the truth both times, when she said she thought I never really loved her and when she said she hadn’t meant it.”
We talked about times Theo may have said things he hadn’t meant, and how that can happen when emotions run high. He acknowledged that, but said that when he had failed to bite his tongue in situations, it hadn’t included a scathing indictment of Suzanne, the person who meant more to him than anyone else. “I once heard someone say that you can’t say something if it’s not in your heart,” he went on. “So that must be in her heart.”
Words are incredibly powerful in relationships. But, depending on the context, they don’t always tell the whole truth.
You can’t say something if it’s not in your heart.
(And its corollary: If you say it, it must be true.)
Much of life is subjective (meaning our experience and our interpretation impose levels of perceived fact on what actually happens). The “truth” in a relationship (the most objective measure of how the union is doing) is best measured by how each of you feel overall, on a day-to-day level. This is not to deny the impact of painful arguments. And it’s not to absolve us of our responsibilities as spouses/partners to choose our words carefully and thoughtfully. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment of the fact that when we’re hurt or angry or upset, we tend to metaphorically “flail.” We often lash out, wanting our partner to hurt, too, and we might say something we truly don’t mean, but it might sound frighteningly convincing to our partner’s ears.
When that happens, our job isn’t to try to hurry our mate out of feeling blindsided and wounded by our words, but to give him/her the space and time needed to process the argument and to feel our steadiness and patience while that occurs. In other words, it’s our job to demonstrate (not in words, necessarily) that the day-to-day bond of love, commitment, and loyalty we share is much more true than the words we uttered in anger.
Theo and Suzanne wrote to me recently (and gave me permission to share their story). They wanted to let me know that they just celebrated their twelfth anniversary, and they were feeling closer than ever. Our talk gave Theo the perspective he needed to look at that awful argument in a new light. Rather than believe that Suzanne’s words represented some deep-seated truth about how she saw Theo, he gave himself permission to recognize that the ultimate truth was in the fabric of their daily lives. “We still squabble from time to time,” he reported (like any and every couple), “but we always come back together after.”
And the swan? They still have it. “It’s been repaired,” Suzanne wrote. “And though it’ll never be ‘perfect,’ it’s stronger in the places where the cracks were.”
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured images courtesy of Ambro & Stockimages from FreeDigitalPhotos.net)