Q: When I get in arguments with my wife, she deliberately tries to make me mad by calling me names. She usually says something like, "You've always been so selfish, you never think of anyone but yourself," or worse, "You are a filthy slob."
If I make a mistake or forget to pay a bill, she calls me a moron. I try to laugh it off and just think she's in a bad mood but it really is starting to get to me.
I was called these kinds of names by my brothers and sisters as a kid, and I don't want to relive those times in my marriage. What should I do?
A: The best strategy is for you and your wife to sit down and agree on a moratorium of statements that begin with the word "you," unless followed by "are the sweetest, most wonderful spouse a person could ever have."
In other words, "you statements" are fine as compliments and positive expressions of appreciation in a marriage, but have no place if followed by negative put downs, hurtful adjectives or character assassinations.
"You" statements that are negative are expressions of pure contempt and disgust. There is nothing more damaging to a marriage than contempt. It is toxic fumes to a marriage; it kills it off and quickly.
Decide right now to cease and desist all utterances of negativity to or with with your spouse that begin with the word "you."
Of course you have to express negative sentiment in a marriage, and this is done through complaints. Most of us don't like complaints against us either, but this is part of the communication process in a marriage that identifies problems and offers solutions.
Complaints are accomplished through "I statements," taking responsibility for your own reaction and your own part in finding a solution to the problem.
For example, if she feels you are selfish, she can say, "I feel upset when you make plans for the weekend without discussing it with me. I would prefer if you would let me know by Wednesday what you are thinking of and give me a chance to come up with some ideas for our weekend. Maybe we can even take turns making plans for the weekend."
This method focuses on behavior and feelings rather than character assassination.
Watch responding to complaints by being defensive, although this is certainly human.
Defensive responding goes something like, "Oh, sure, if I asked you what you wanted we'd always end up at your stupid sister's house watching the grass grow."
If a defensive response comes into your mind, think it but don't say it.
Work toward accepting her influence to find a middle ground to resolve the problem.
If either one of you should make a mistake and say a "you are a pig" statement, make sure you own up to it and apologize immediately.
Effective communication with a partner involves a tremendous amount of filtering what you are thinking and feeling in an impulsive way.
About 80 percent of what you think and feel in a heated moment probably just should be sent off to a back file of your mind. Later you may want to address the issue with "I statements" and assertive requests.
Take a time out if necessary so you don't say something you will soon regret.
Try this as best you can.
Janet Hibel has a diplomate in counseling psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology. E-mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (561) 694- 6703. Her Web site is