It is easy to fall into communication patterns that harm us and those around us. Unfortunately, this often results in tense workplace relationships, soured friendships, and, in the case of your relationship, partner conflict that can inevitably lead to divorce.

Today, we will address two harmful communication styles and offer some techniques and examples to improve your communication.  

Harmful Pattern Number One: Passive-Aggression

Passive aggression is an emotionally harmful, covert manner of communicating feelings of anger but doing so indirectly. Some people may not be aware they are doing this, as it has become an ingrained part of their communication pattern. Others know what they are doing and use it to get back at people, to ‘stick the knife in’ instead of confronting them directly.

In my experience, passive-aggressive communicator tries to manipulate the situation to their advantage, using underhanded tactics, and when confronted, they often deny they are doing this.

Examples of harmful, passive-aggressive behavior:

  • You are joking at your partner’s expense in front of your friends, humiliating them and making them feel lesser.
  • You are playing dumb to frustrate someone or gain the upper hand.
  • They are ignoring someone, walking out of the room when they speak, or refusing to answer them when spoken to.
  • Nit-picking and arguing over small things to avoid dealing with the real issue.
  • Perpetually portraying yourself as the victim, you take no responsibility or accept any need to change your behavior. 

Harmful pattern number two: Avoidance.

In marital research, this is also termed “stonewalling.” While this may occur in both genders, it is more prevalent in men than women. Avoidance refers to someone being emotionally unavailable and deliberately cutting themselves off from someone. They may not want anything to do with a specific person or avoid discussing the topic causing the conflict.

Avoidance can come in the form of walking out of the room, changing the subject, ignoring others when they speak, or making it known that their interest is elsewhere when the uncomfortable topic is brought up, for example, turning on the television as the discussion begins.

 For example, Sarah and Tom had been close friends since college, sharing a deep bond for over a decade. However, every few months, a minor disagreement or misunderstanding would trigger Tom’s intense anger. Sarah struggled to handle these outbursts; her response was to avoid his texts and calls for a week. This strained their friendship. Following each incident, she would withdraw and create emotional distance, leaving Tom feeling isolated and hurt despite his sincere apologies and efforts to repair the connection.

The Assertive Communicator

Assertive communication enables people to explain their thoughts clearly, wants, needs, and feelings to people without offending others or feeling the need to walk away or avoid the situation.

Assertive communication skill number one: Send a clear message.

An assertive communicator understands that body language is vital to good communication. Research shows that 80% of communication is done without words, using non-verbal behavior. If your comments say one thing, but your body language is saying another, the listener may need clarification. 

Imagine your friend pouring their heart out, saying their relationship just ended. You offer your sympathy and genuinely do feel for them, but all the while, you constantly look at your phone and check your watch while you gather up your car keys. The message would be clear. I am sorry, but I want to get out of here and get on with my day. You may not even be aware of your actions, but those we talk with certainly see the signs.

When talking with a loved one, pay close attention to your body language and actions. 

  • Facial expressions 
  • Eye contact
  • Posture 
  • Hand movement (fiddling with keys, phone)
  • The tone of your voice

Assertive communication skill number two: Learn to listen.

Assertive communicators have well-developed listening skills. As you may notice, many people need to improve their listening skills. They may be distracted with their phones or simply waiting, somewhat impatiently, for their turn to talk rather than listening deeply to what you are saying.

Hearing occurs with our ears, while listening engages our hearts. Put down distractive devices, take a deep breath, and actively listen to the other person. Think about what they are saying and let them talk openly and freely without interruption. When you reply, do so sincerely and respond from the heart instead of moving onto a topic that may interest you more.

 Just remember, taking the time to listen may help someone you love out of a place of inner turmoil. Being open to hearing brings you closer in your relationship and helps strengthen the bond you share.

Literally, think again. And then think about what you are thinking about- especially around anger issues.

As famous psychologist William James said over 100 years ago:

“Man can alter his life by altering his thinking.”

The case of Sally and Jim

Sally and Jim sat in my office glaring at each other. Sally told a story around an angry conflict they had had eariler in the week.

I found Sally to be quite humorous and entertaining. But Jim had an entirely different perception. Getting more and more agitated and angry as he listened to his wife, he looked at me and said “see what I mean, doc? Isn’t she irritating?

“I don’t find her irritating,” I replied. I then went on to explain that “irritation” (or most other traits or ways of relating) isn’t as much in the partner as in your perception of it- or how you think about it- or the general attitude you have toward your partner to begin with.

In other words,your mental set or mental framework you have toward your partner influences how you interpret what they do or how they are.

Negative and positive sentiment override

There is much marital research at the Gottman institute to back this up. There, researchers discovered something called “negative sentiment override” vs positive sentiment override.”

In Gottman’s theory, when negative sentiment override (NSO) is present, there is a discrepancy between the perceptions of the receiver and the sender of an interaction.  Just like Jim, we can distort and see a communication through a negative lens, even when their partner did not intend it to be negative.  In fact, objective observers may not perceive the interaction to be negative, at all. (just as I didn’t see Sally as irritating, like Jim did).

 It is in the “eyes of the beholder” so to speak, that he or she are on the receiving end of something negative. By contrast, In positive sentiment override (PSO), negative interactions are not seen as particularly negative, or at least they are not taken personally.  When there is PSO between a couple, the partners give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Even if one partner IS conveying negativity in content or tone, the other does not personalize, react to, match, or “store away for a rainy day” their partner’s bad mood, negativity, etc.

Getting from negative to more positive sentiment overide: Two Steps

Sounds good, but how does a couple shift from negative to positive sentiment override? Try these two steps as a startup strategy:

Step 1- Try to become friends again by doing things you enjoy together -like when you were dating. I know there are any obstacles to this: children, Covid-19 pandemic, money ,etc but try a little harder to re-connect.
See the attached worksheet to give you some more ideas.

Step 2- Consciously alter you thought patterns about your partner by looking at what you are telling yourself about what they do that makes you angry or upset toward then.

Here are some “self-talk” thoughts I teach people in my anger management classes to teach themselves to be less angry at whatever their partner does. These changes in thought patterns have helped many hundreds of partners be less angry toward their partner- even if their partners doesn’t change their behavior.

Change Angry Thoughts to 4 Corrective Thoughts

Angry Thought #1- My partner should think like I do. If they don’t, its my duty to work on them until they do think like me- or at least admit they are wrong.

Corrective thought #1: My partner and I don’t have to think alike: to get along we just have to be tolerant of how the other one thinks.

Angry Thought #2-My partner does things I consider stupid or wrong. Because they are stupid or wrong, they shouldn’t do these things.

Corrective thought #2: Within limits, they have a right to do what they want to- but I also have a right not to want to live with a person who does those things and I will communicate that to them calmly.

Angry Thought #3- I know I am right about the issue we often fight about.

Corrective thought #3: I am not 100% right nor are they 100% wrong on any matter of dispute. Fact is, usually “the truth” is in the middle. In marriage, there is more than one “truth” so it is possible you are both “right” but you are each looking at the conflict or issue from a different point of view.

Angry Thought #4– Things should go my way- because I deserve it and because I want it that way.

Corrective thought #4: I am not the center of the universe, or even the center of our relationship. It is irrational to think that things MUST go my way- even though I would like them to. Rather than getting angry, I need to work on my skill of accepting what is instead of what I self-centeredly want it to be. I also need to practice thinking in terms of “we” instead of “me.”


Download a FREE PDF file called “Sharing Things as a Couple Worksheet” that will help you develop the techniques discussed in this article.

According to famed therapist Terry Real, the short answer is:

“To disarm an angry woman, give her what she needs.”

To illustrate this point, let me introduce to 55 year-old Jerry who came to see me because his very angry (Linda) gave him the ultimatum of seeing a therapist or a divorce lawyer. (He had to think about this for awhile, but decided a therapist was the lessor of the evils)

The Case Of Jerry
Jerry, a successful real estate developer, wasn’t a bad guy – he just didn’t have a clue as to why his wife of 10 years was always angry at him. If she wasn’t yelling, (even raging), or criticizing, she talked to him with absolute contempt. This, despite the fact that he was an excellent provider, he was a great father to their children, and he was well thought of in their social circles and their community. He did not drink excessively and he was not unfaithful to her.

He felt he could do nothing right in her eyes – but honestly couldn’t see anything he was doing wrong either. Again, her constant anger and dissatisfaction mystified him.

At first, he became defensive to ward off her attacks and protect himself. Jerry often argued with her by offering all kinds of logical reasons why he did what he did that upset her, trying to convince her that she was mistaken, that she was wrong, that she was exaggerating, or worse, that she was crazy.

Her response? More angry. In fact, now the anger included not only the original complaints, but the fact that he was so emotionally unaware that he didn’t understand at all what she was really upset about.

Jerry tried to stay out of trouble
To stay out of trouble, he started avoiding his wife more and more both physically (including sexually) and emotionally. After all, he reasoned, why stand in the path of gunfire when someone is shooting at you?

Like many beleaguered husbands, he mistakenly attributed his wife’s mood swings and anger to menopause or other medical explanations for her behavior.

When he mentioned this to her, again her level of anger increased because she saw it as a way to disavow his contribution to what she saw as her justifiable anger toward him.

Underneath, Linda saw herself as being emotionally victimized by her husband. Consequently, she felt justified in her anger and justified in her need to protect herself by attacking him.

Jerry saw himself as a good husband
Jerry, for his part, certainly didn’t see himself as victimizing his wife in any way. His motive was to please her, so he would have a peaceful life, but he just didn’t have the skills needed to deal with Linda and her emotional needs.

He grew up in a home and at a time period in our history where no one taught him how to deal with the emotional needs and raised expectations of modern women who demand much more out of their relationships than did many women of an older generation.

So, what are these skills exactly, that Jerry and thousands of other men in our society need to learn and acquire to disarm an angry wife?

(Note – I had to learn them too. The rules have just changed over the years.)

Are you ready for the shocking answer?

3 disarming skills to use on a daily basis

Skill #1: Learn better “Empathy. “ To do this, start actually listening more to her. Seriously, listen more to your wife- not only the facts and information she talks about, but how she feels about what she is telling you- and the underlying meaning to what she is saying.

Remember, “hearing” your wife is not the same thing as “listening” to her. Developing better empathy skills requires getting out of yourself and practice seeing the world as your wife does, even if you don’t agree with her. Then acknowledge to her that you understand how she sees the issue.

Skill #2: Find ways to emotionally connect on a daily basis, even if it is only for a few minutes. Think of your marriage as a plant sitting out on your back patio. To survive, both must have daily watering and sunshine. Respond to her “bids for affection.”(ways she is trying to connect with you) Ignoring or blowing off such bids is not a good idea.

Skill #3: Show More emotional vulnerability. Don’t double down on issues of disagreement. For many women, male vulnerability is the pathway to her feeling close to you.

Enlightened men who trust their partner enough to show vulnerability are able to drop their defensiveness, to share feelings with their wife, and be brave enough to risk allowing your wife to see you for who you really are.


Download a FREE PDF file called “The Active Listening Worksheet” that will help you develop listening techniques discussed in this article.

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