How to Respond After You Hurt Your Spouse

What to do when you've upset your partner

Verywell / JR Bee  

Face it. There are times when your spouse will be upset. Maybe your spouse will be upset with you. Maybe your spouse will be upset with someone or something that has nothing to do with you.

Studies have indicated that couples need to adjust their communication to the contextual demands they are facing in order to turn conflict into a catalyst for building healthier and happier relationships. In short, sometimes it is important to be direct and confront an issue head-on, while other times it is better to have a softer approach. The type of response should depend on the situation.

​But there are some basic rules that can enhance communication. You can upset your spouse even more if you do not acknowledge your spouse's feelings, if you try a "quick fix," or if you downplay the reason your spouse is upset.

Your spouse can upset you by being irrational or if he or she crossed certain boundaries or ground rules in your marriage.

"The next time you are upset with your partner, instead of attacking with angry accusations, take some time to calm down first. When you are feeling peaceful again, you can work together to build a stronger relationship." from The Marriage Garden Program.

  • Acknowledge and accept your spouse's feelings

  • Share your feelings

  • Say "I love you."

  • Apologize appropriately

  • Listen to try to understand why your spouse is upset

  • Dismiss or minimize your spouse's feelings or logic, verbally or through body language

  • Be defensive

  • Say nothing or leave the room

  • Make a sexual advance

  • Try to problem-solve without addressing emotional upset

What You Should Not Say

Research has indicated that direct opposition can be necessary when serious problems need to be addressed in a marriage and partners are able to change. But opposition can inflict harm when partners are not confident or secure enough to be responsive. Here are some examples of phrases that are not helpful:

  • "It's not a big deal." Yes, it is a big deal to your spouse. Your spouse's feelings and thoughts about the issue do matter.
  • "I can make this better for you." Thinking you have the solution to your spouse's problem or issue will probably be taken as patronizing. Your spouse may want to understand as opposed to comforting.
  • "I had a worse day than you did." The one-upmanship game is not winnable. Don't play it.
  • "Whatever." If you want to come across as being super insensitive, say "whatever." This phrase will guarantee you will have an even more upset spouse.
  • "I did not ..." Being defensive will only escalate the argument or issue the two of you are dealing with.
  • " ...." Saying nothing or leaving the room without saying you want a timeout or space for a bit is not a good idea when you have an upset spouse.
  • "You don't make sense." Your spouse may have a different take on the situation, but that doesn't mean your spouse's concerns aren't valid or that your spouse needs a lecture from you.
  • "You turn me on when you're angry." Suggesting that the two of you have sex when you have an upset spouse may be perceived as demeaning and insensitive.

How You Should Respond

Believe it or not, communication research indicates that a softer more cooperative approach involving affection and validation can be harmful when serious problems need to change. But the approach may be helpful in the face of problems that are minor, cannot be changed, or involve partners whose defensiveness curtails problem-solving. Take these steps to help calm and resolve the argument:

  • Acknowledge your awareness that your spouse is upset. Don't ignore the situation or try to make a joke about it.
  • Watch body language. Listening involves more than hearing what your spouse has to say. Noticing the non-verbal communication that you both show can give you more understanding.
  • Avoid the eye roll. Rolling your eyes can escalate the tension between the two of you.
  • Don't just walk away. If you need time to think through the situation or some space for yourself or think your spouse needs some space, say so before leaving the room.
  • Accept your spouse's feelings as being okay. You may not like how your spouse feels but you are required to respect those feelings and show empathy.
  • Share your feelings. You can share your thoughts about the problem later. Don't delay in sharing how you feel.
  • Say "I love you." Say the words. Don't elaborate. Just say it.
  • Don't make any big decisions. It's not a good idea to rush into any major decisions while either of you are upset.
  • Know when and how to apologize. A meaningful apology requires more than saying "I'm sorry."

When Being Upset Crosses the Line

It is not acceptable for an upset spouse to be abusive.

If you are experiencing verbal abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, or sexual abuse in your marriage, please seek professional help immediately. National Domestic Violence Hotline -- 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

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  1. Overall NC, McNulty JK. What Type of Communication during Conflict is Beneficial for Intimate Relationships?Curr Opin Psychol. 2017;13:1–5. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.03.002