One of the biggest on-going problems for couples is how to reduce the hurt feelings that can result from arguments and disagreements. The fall-out from a no-holds barred “kill your opponent” verbal altercation can last for decades.

I have worked with numerous couples in counseling who have struggled with forgiving each other for damaging words they have said during a fight. Many times, the fallout from an argument or shouting match is left to accumulate like toxic dust on the relationship, with each ensuing episode adding another layer. Eventually, the residue interferes with every component of the relationship as resentment and unaddressed issues build up.

The words you say and the tone of voice you use during an argument are important. So is the way you deliver your message (screaming and hollering, for example) and any non-verbal gestures you use (shaking your finger in your partner’s face). If you make fun of your partner and show disrespect for him, you are hurting the chances for real communication between you.

The same is true if you make threatening gestures and try to intimidate your partner with your anger. Honest, healthy communication requires a feeling of safety from attack. A partner who is afraid her partner will make fun of her ideas or feelings, either at the time or later during an argument, isn’t going to share what she is really thinking or feeling.

So how can you and your partner create an atmosphere of safety and protection so that you can each express your real feelings and thoughts? And how can you disagree so that you don’t permanently damage your relationship?

You can take action and ask your partner if the two of you can work together to develop a list of fair fighting rules that you both agree to abide by. Here are some guidelines often used in counseling sessions for you to consider:

1. Even when you’re in the white heat of anger, think about the possible damage that you could do if you let your anger out unrestrained. The challenge is for each of you to express yourself without damaging the fabric of your relationship. The fabric of the relationship has to be protected. There’s no place in a healthy relationship for a partner who wants to win an argument at all costs, no matter what he or she has to say or do to “win.” The same goes for a partner who wants to “win” by hurting the partner as much as possible.

2. Emphasize showing respect for each other, even if you can’t figure out how your partner could possibly feel the way he or she does. You don’t have to understand it and you don’t have to agree—you just have to respect your partner’s right to have differing ideas and opinions.

3. Ban name-calling, cursing, belittling, sarcasm, mockery, screaming, and pushing, slapping, or other physical or emotional abuse. These actions will only cause division and hard feelings between you and will harm your relationship. They will not help you to find constructive ways to settle your differences.

4. Avoid using words such as “always” and “never,” such as “You’re always late. You’re never on time for anything. I’m sick and tired of always waiting for you.” The words “always” and “never” are examples of over-generalizing, and they close communication doors instead of opening them. They also divert the discussion from the real issues and turn the focus onto whether or not the other person can come up with an example of a time when he or she wasn’t late but the partner was.

5. Keep the discussion limited to the issue at hand. Many relationships have an informal “historian” who can recount every mistake the other partner has ever made. When this happens, the discussion is diverted from the present issue to an argument about what did or didn’t happen in the past, which greatly reduces the odds that the present disagreement will be resolved. Stick with current events instead of revisiting past history that can’t be changed.

6. Listen to each other and let each person speak his or her mind. This can be difficult to do when you’re frustrated, impatient, and agitated. But until you have heard each other out, you don’t have all the information you need to try to reach a respectful compromise.

7. Take a break from the discussion when it gets too emotional or “heavy.” Go to the bathroom, step outside on the deck, or do some deep breathing exercises to help relieve the stress. Let yourself cool down and give yourself a chance to regroup before continuing the discussion.

8. Apologize immediately when you slip and say something that might hurt your partner’s feelings. Say, “I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for that to come out sounding like that. Please forgive me. Let me try again.”

9. Look for a “win-win” compromise resolution. Some issues are more important to one partner than the other, and it builds up good will to go with your partner’s views when it doesn’t really matter as much to you.

If your partner wants you to record the checks you write in a certain way so that it’ll be easier for him or her to handle the bill-paying, it probably makes sense to go along with it, even if it’s not the way you’d do it. That will build up good will so that the next time you have a differing opinion about something that’s really important to you, you’ll have a better chance of acquiring support from your partner.

10. If the subject is too emotional for you and your partner to resolve between you, then consider enlisting the help of a professional counselor to serve as mediator. It may only take two to three sessions to clear the air, generate some new options, and make a decision. And the best part is that by using a counselor to help you work out an acceptable compromise, you avoid the long-term strain and emotional drain that could damage your relationship for years.

Until you and your partner can discuss emotional issues and have differing opinions without being disrespectful to each other, it will be impossible to tackle the really crucial issues in your marriage with any lasting success. Without mutual respect and the assurance that you won’t be ridiculed, you will both be reluctant to express your true feelings and show vulnerability.

Author's Bio: 

Nancy J. Wasson, Ph.D., is co-creator of Overcome Control Conflict with Your Spouse or Partner, available at She is also co-author of Keep Your Marriage: What to Do When Your Spouse Says "I don't love you anymore!" which is available at, as well as a free weekly Keep Your Marriage Internet Magazine. Dr. Wasson offers telephone coaching to individuals and couples who want to overcome relationship problems and create a rewarding, loving partnership. Nancy can be contacted at ">