The Case of Lauren & ETHAN: An Argument on the Brink of Disaster is Saved by 4 Magic Words

Lauren listened as her husband Ethan described his frustration with her criticizing and correcting him when he was giving their 2-year old son a bath that evening.

“You always have to make these comments about what I’m doing wrong and how I should be doing it differently,” he said in an exasperated tone. “It’s so frustrating! And you wonder why I don’t help out more. You always have to criticize everything I do.”

Lauren immediately felt a surge of anger and felt a strong impulse to defend herself. She could think of plenty of times when she didn’t criticize him or tell him to do something differently with their son. She wanted to set the record straight and tell him about all of those instances to prove how wrong and unfair his characterization of her was.

Thankfully, she didn’t get sucked into escalating the conversation into a full-blown negative fight—which is exactly what would have transpired had she gone down the path of correcting the record and defending herself.

Instead, Lauren took a deep breath and thought about whether even just a small part of what Ethan was saying could be true. As she thought about it, there was some small truth to what he was saying. Tonight was a particularly difficult bath night—their son had been fussy all afternoon and then was screaming and crying during bath time. She was just trying to help them all get through the bath time chaos, but she had to admit that she probably did come across more as a commander barking out orders rather than a partner offering help and support.

So she responded using the 4 magic words. “I can see that,” she said calmly. “I can see how that whole bath time tonight was a very stressful situation with that screaming tantrum.” She continued, “And it probably didn’t help when I came running in half way through and tried to tell you what to do in the midst of the craziness. I probably could have just backed off and let you handle it.”

Ethan’s facial expression, posture and tone shifted almost instantly from irritability to relief. He felt understood and he appreciated that Lauren seemed to get how frustrating that situation was for him and that her coming in and trying to help actually made it worse for him. From there, the conversation continued and Ethan and Lauren were able to talk calmly about how challenging they both find their son’s tantrums and they even laughed about how appropriate the name “Terrible Two’s” is for this phase in their son’s life. They talked about how they could handle future situations when one of them is in the midst of dealing with a tantrum and what would and wouldn’t be helpful for the other person to do during those stressful times. They were on the same team during the rest of the conversation, strategizing together as to how they can handle future challenges.


Expect that Your Partner’s Complaints About You Will Probably Feel Unfair & Exaggerated

It would be nice if it were the norm for your partner to bring up complaints in a gentle way every time, but the reality is that even the most kind and loving partner at times will still, in frustration, express a complaint that feels unfair or exaggerated.

In the example of Lauren and Ethan, Ethan brought up a complaint about Lauren that felt unfair and exaggerated. Lauren didn’t agree with the facts that she “always” makes comments of what he does wrong and that she “criticizes everything” he does.

Even in my own marriage, I do not perfectly express my concerns in the most loving and patient way every time. There are times when I'm feeling particularly frustrated or overwhelmed and a complaint to my husband comes out more harshly than necessary. (And I'm the Marriage Therapist who is supposed to communicate with my husband perfectly all the time, right?) 

We are all guilty of sometimes over-generalizing or exaggerating when we are upset. Therefore, it's important to know how to get a conversation back on track to be productive even if your partner initially describes the situation in a less-than-ideal way. What ultimately determines how the conversation proceeds in these caseswhether it will become a productive discussion or escalate into a big fightis how you choose to respond.


Focus On the Small Part of the Complaint that You Understand and Can Agree With

Lauren knew that focusing on correcting the facts would have really been missing the point of what Ethan was trying to say to her. Often when couples focus on correcting the facts while defending themselves against an exaggerated claim, they completely overlook the most important piece of information that really needs to be talked about—the core hurt, worry, or desire underlying the complaint.

Focusing on the unfairness and exaggeration doesn’t help to make a conversation more productive. Rather, it usually thrusts the conversation into even more negative terrain. So instead of correcting the record and defending herself, Lauren rightfully focused on the small part of what Ethan said that she could understand and agree with. Then she used the 4 magic words “I can see that” to express empathy, understanding, and to take responsibility for her part of the situation.

A 2015 research study examining newlywed couples’ arguments found that the act of expressing empathy and taking even a small part of responsibility for a situation has a significant effect in turning a negative conflict conversation into a much more positive and productive discussion (Gottman et. al, 2015). The results suggest that a couple’s ability to have empathy and emotional connection during an argument predicts how successful the couple will be at resolving the conflict and maintaining a strong, loving bond.


So what can we learn from Lauren and EThAN?

When your partner brings up a complaint that feels unfair or exaggerated:

1.     Resist the urge to immediately defend yourself or correct the ‘facts’ of what was said.

2.     Focus on finding a small part of what your partner is saying that you can understand, agree with, and take some responsibility for. (You probably won’t agree 100% with your partner’s characterization of the situation and that’s okay. Just focus on the part you can agree with and can take some responsibility for).

3.     Use the 4 magic words, “I can see that” to express your understanding and empathy of that part you agree with and can take some responsibility for.


Now, you try it!

Think of a time your partner brought up a complaint about you. What small part could you have understood and taken responsibility for. How might the conversation have been different if you had used the 4 magic words: “I can see that”?


Gottman, J. M., Driver, J., & Tabares, A. (2015). Repair during marital conflict in newlyweds: How couples move from attack-defend to collaboration. Journal of Family Psychotherapy, 26, 85-108.