How to Communicate That You Are Unhappy Without Hurting Your Spouse's Feelings

by Katrina Miller

If you are unhappy with your spouse, using constructive communication is the most effective way to talk about problems without hurtful feelings. Constructive communication will help you say what is on your mind, while allowing your spouse to save face and feel respected. Constructive communication involves more than sending, receiving and interpreting messages. According Brant R. Burleson, Ph.D., in the “Handbook of Communication Science," constructive communication also requires developing skills to manage both your interactions and your relationship. These communication skills, if practiced frequently, can contribute to a happy, lasting marriage.

Say nice things, remain calm and actively listen. Kira S. Birditt and colleagues identified these as parts of constructive communicationin their 2010 article in the “Journal of Marriage and Family.” You likely have happy feelings about your relationship in addition to your unhappy feelings; commenting on happy feelings is important to assure your spouse does not perceive your criticism as a personal attack. Matching these nice comments with body language that communicates love and acceptance provides a safe environment to discuss difficult feelings. A smile, a touch and eyes that shine with love will soften any uncertainty or hurt that your spouse may experience.

Discuss the problem calmly. A relaxed discussion is less likely to create hurt feelings. Your spouse's alarm antennae will easily pick up body language that portrays feelings of upset or anger. Once your spouse's alarm goes off, you will likely hear the sirens of protest. Prevention includes discussing the problem when you both are relatively stress-free. If either of you is upset, take a short break or a walk together. Agree on a time to revisit the discussion.

Listen actively. Active listening requires acknowledging out loud what your spouse says, as well as your perception of what your spouse feels. For example, you might say, “you (the spouse) said it is not your fault, and it sounded like you felt I was blaming you -- did I get that right"? Acknowledgments that accurately match what your spouse says and feels is more likely to create a discussion that will meet your goals.


  • Your spouse will likely talk about unhappy feelings, too. If those expressions of concern blockade your own, try listening to your spouse's concerns first. Use your experience as a listener to show your spouse how you would like to be listened to. When your spouse agrees that you understand, ask to finish explaining your feelings. If the blockades continue, ask your spouse to “listen without interrupting."


  • Creating a marriage that is satisfying and lasts a lifetime involves much more than constructive conversation style. Destructive or avoidant behaviors while communicating may signal a need to address stresses or get professional help. Constructive communication is complex, and couples cannot expect do get it right every time. Even couples who use constructive communication and feel good about their marriages sometimes divorce.

About the Author

Katrina Miller is a medical writer specializing in behavioral health. She has been published in "Family Perspectives" and the "Salt Lake Tribune." She has a doctoral degree in Family and Human Development from Utah State University.

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