Ask a Therapist: How Do I Stop Saying Hurtful Things I Don't Mean?

Illustration of a man speaking out of rage

Verywell / Catherine Song

In the “Ask a Therapist” series, I’ll be answering your questions about all things mental health and psychology. Whether you are struggling with a mental health condition, coping with anxiety about a life situation, or simply looking for a therapist's insight, submit a question. Look out for my answers to your questions every other Friday in the Healthy Mind newsletter.

Our Reader Asks

When my wife asks me to do something I don’t want to do or when she gives me constructive criticism, I turn things around on her. I say things I don’t mean. I always apologize later but I know I hurt her feelings and I know I’m damaging our relationship. How do I stop doing this to her? 

—Craig, 32

Amy’s Answer

It’s a healthy sign that you’re realizing the words you use are powerful. And right now, you’re using them as a weapon and you can see the damage that is being done to your relationship. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to change your behavior and improve the relationship moving forward.

Take Ownership for Your Behavior

During a time when everyone is calm, sit down with your wife and hold a conversation. Explain that you see the error of your ways. And you want to work on creating positive change.

Don’t point any fingers at your wife. And don’t ask her to communicate differently with you. Focus on changing your behavior, not hers.

Offer an explanation, but not an excuse. For example, you might say, “When my feelings are hurt, I lash out,” as opposed to, “Your tone of voice makes me feel like a bad person.” Take responsibility for your emotions and your actions.

Catch Yourself Before You Get Too Angry

When your wife brings up an issue, it’s important to learn to catch yourself before responding in an unhelpful manner.

You might need to take a deep breath and count to 10, or you may need to notice how your body responds. Your heart might start to beat fast, or your face may feel hot.

When your body triggers a stress response, it’s your sign that you shouldn’t say anything—at least not right now—and that you should take a break from the conversation. 

Develop a Plan Together

Work with your wife on developing a plan that will support your efforts to remain calm. The plan might involve taking a break or walking away for a few minutes when you feel frustrated.

Explain that you don’t want to abandon the issue she’s addressing, but you need to take action to stay calm, so you don’t end up saying things you later regret.

If she doesn’t know the plan from the beginning, she may feel as though you’re avoiding the situation or that you’re dismissing what she has to say.

When she understands that you’re just taking a temporary break and you’ll return to address the problem when you feel calmer, she’ll trust that it’s OK to let you walk away without needing to follow.

Work On Yourself

A little self-reflection might go a long way toward helping you better understand what happens when your wife brings up an issue.

Uncovering the reason that you get defensive can help. You’ll likely discover that you’re making some incorrect assumptions. 

When she asks you to help out more around the house, do you immediately interpret that to mean you’re not a good husband? Or when she asks you for help, do you feel like she’s asking you for too much? 

Spend a little time asking yourself, “What does this mean?” when you are tempted to react negatively. 

Press Play For Advice On Dealing With Emotions

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares a strategy to manage an uncomfortable feeling in under one minute. 

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Practice Healthy Communication

Consider whether you’re ignoring problems as they arise. There’s a good chance you don’t bring up concerns with your wife when you have them. So when she brings up an issue, you automatically think, “Oh yeah, but here’s all the stuff you did wrong, and I didn’t bring it up.”

Ignoring problems isn’t a badge of honor. You won’t get anywhere by pretending issues don’t exist.

It’s important to work on communicating your concerns when you have them, rather than blurting out a whole list of issues the next time you’re upset. 

You might spend a few minutes distracting yourself with a household task, or you might go to another room to cool down. Don’t try to hold a rational conversation when you’re feeling really emotional.

Talk to your wife about what’s working, what you want to improve upon, and the things that bother you. Just make sure you hold those conversations when you’re both calm. 

Get Help If Your Strategies Don’t Work

It takes time to create new habits. It will also take hard work to break free of your old patterns.

If you struggle to do it on your own, reach out to a therapist. Talking to someone could help you feel better, and it may also help you improve your relationship with your wife. 

By Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.