When Partner is Hostile, say “Talk to Me Like Someone You Love”

The problem is familiar to most of us. Whether it originates from tension, stress, problems at work, problems with a child, disagreements, arguments, money worries, health concerns or any number of other reasons, sometimes you and your intimate partner get angry with each other, and tempers between the two of you flare.

It can be difficult to kiss and make up, and what often happens is that the issue or dispute never gets resolved, so it smolders—and before long it erupts again, frequently with full force. Some couples stay in this cold-war-like-state for years, never fixing the hostility that is always just below the surface.

The reason that disagreements or hurt feelings can often be so hard to repair is that the energy between the two of you feels more unfriendly than friendly. And when that happens, neither of you will feel heard, seen, cared for or loved, and you feel more disconnected from your partner than connected. That’s when problems never seem to go away, and the two of you grow further and further apart.

The way to reverse this dynamic is to change the conversation from the issue at hand (money, sex, parenting, control) to the overarching feeling that’s getting triggered—which invariably is related to how you’re being treated. If you identified that you’re feeling invisible—or belittled, disrespected, bullied, shamed, unheard or unappreciated—you are engaging in a completely different conversation. And that just may help to soften the tension between the two of you, and help to bring out the tender and caring feelings that have been buried for so long.

Nancy Dreyfus has a whole series of sentences that you can use to communicate such overarching feelings during a hostile or unfriendly interaction with a spouse, lover, child, parent or friend. Here are some of those sentences, which are printed in her book: Talk to Me Like I’m Someone You Love (Jeremy P. Tarcher Publisher):

  • I have no idea what to do right now, except to tell you that I am in a lot of pain. I know you are too, and I want it to be friendlier between us.
  • I’ve been so focused on being heard, I didn’t see how much sense you are making.
  • I was making a big deal out of something that just isn’t that important. I want to let it go.
  • I am your friend. It’s painful seeing how quickly I can become your enemy.
  • When you go on and on like that, I feel invisible to you.
  • Rather than just criticize me, tell me what you want in a more positive way.
  • I hate feeling that I have to walk on eggshells around you.
  • I want us to stop what we are doing to each other. Now.
  • When you talk to me that way, I feel small.
  • I’m starting to disappear. It feels like there’s no space for me.
  • It feels like you hate me. Do you?
  • I can see that my anger has been destructive and that I’ve really hurt you.
  • I know I haven’t made if feel terribly safe for you. Give me another chance.
  • I can see why you’d be upset with me.
  • I don’t feel heard.You are taking up so much space right now, it feels like there’s no room for me or my feelings.
  • Your behavior embarrassed me. I’m saying this not to make you feel bad, but so I can feel close to you again.
  • Your behavior was threatening to me. I’m saying this not to make you feel bad, but so that I can feel safe with you again.
  • What can I say that would help you to feel understood?
  • Tell me the truth—am I responding in the way you need for me to?
  • It would mean a lot to me if you could just paraphrase back what you think I’m trying to say.
  • I’m sorry. Please forgive me.
  • I know I’ve really hurt you. What could I do that would help you trust me again?.
  • I’d do anything for you to know how much I love you.
  • I love you. I don’t want our relationship to be a fight.
  • Talk to me like I’m a friend who wants to do right by you.
  • You are precious. And you deserve to be treated that way.
  • It would mean a lot if you could just say “I’m sorry,” and do something that shows me you care about what happened.
  • Talk to me like I’m someone you love.

4 comments on “When Partner is Hostile, say “Talk to Me Like Someone You Love”

  1. “Talk to me like someone you love” typically begets either a hostile response about me casting accusations or a 2-4 day silent treatment. Got anything better to soften a hostile wife?

    • You’ll be way better off getting out of a hostile environment. Give yourself a fighting chance at wellness, there’s no way you actually deserve that kind of abuse. Let yourself off the hook, man.L_,.

  2. I realise this thread is quite old but I want to add my thoughts. Some of those points are quite valid things to say. But beware that it doesn’t work in an abusive situation.

    My wife has been mixing it up between generally hating me and talking to me like I’m such a drain on her life. Then other times she talks in a reasonable time. But definitely refuses to show any love.

    Even saying on occasion that she will divorce me, move out etc.

    But here’s the thing, she has a lengthy history of physical and verbal abuse against me when she is angry. I’ve been through it all. It’s not painful as I don’t remember much of the bad times anymore.

    Just these last couple of months have felt like we are living separated under the same roof with our young son as the only common link. At least we can be sort of civil most of the time. But forget whatever affection was there before. Convenience sex yes but general affection like a smile, time together or valuing the fact we have other? No way. I have the strong impression that she sees me as overweight and poor. She wants a man that can step up and match her earnings. That I’m too poor and too stupid.

    Why stay? Children and wishing things could be better. Our son is only 22 months old. So young. FIL flies out from his home country to help take care of our son.

    My wife tries to manage so many debts that she took on and sees me with no money leftover and claims I’m lazy, stupid, useless, dumb, loser etc.

    That despite the fact I work full time shift work in a government role and study part time at uni as well….

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