W e’re naturally talented at all the techniques that break down, block, and derail communication. This is because we’re too emotional to follow the orderly rules of good communication.

Logical, left-brained communication follows a natural order: raise an issue, discuss it, resolve it. But when emotion floods a conversation, the rules of good communication fly out the window. If one or both parties in a conversation have strong feelings, “good communication” isn’t likely to happen.

Personal Threat

Nothing alerts the emotional centers of the brain quite like a sense of personal threat. When Person A makes a complaint to Person B, it may be experienced as an attack. In such a case, the victim of the attack feels he must shut down the threatening communication. One effective strategy for this is called the “switcheroo,” which stops the attack with a bold counterattack. Here’s how it works:

Person A makes a complaint to Person B.

Person B feels hurt and/or insulted.

Person B complains to Person A about being hurt and/or insulted.

Notice how the sequence ends with “the switch.” In step 1, Person A was the complainer and by step 3, Person B is the complainer. Also notice — and this is most important — that Person A’s complaint is never addressed. The switcheroo has successfully quelled the threat; communication has been completely derailed.

An Example of the Switcheroo

Let’s see how the switcheroo works in real life.

Husband: “When you criticize me in front of the kids, I feel diminished and uncomfortable. Can you please make your remarks to me when we’re alone?”

Wife: “I can’t believe you’re saying this. I hardly ever criticize you — in fact, I keep all my feelings to myself because I don’t want to be a nagging wife like your mother was — and the one time I make a tiny remark with a couple of kids around, you complain about it! I’m devastated!”

Look carefully at this example and you’ll find no trace of the wife addressing her husband’s complaint. Instead you’ll see that in her “response,” she complains about him! He’ll leave the conversation feeling that he did something terrible by daring to complain.

There are several predictable consequences of regular use of the switcheroo in marriage. One is that the spouse on the receiving end of the strategy will feel increasingly frustrated, unheard, and uncared about. The other, truly disastrous outcome is that a spouse may stop raising issues altogether, since the tables always get turned. The subsequent lack of honesty and emotional intimacy can threaten the very integrity of a marriage.

Pause — and Comfort Yourself

Fortunately, there’s a simple solution. When you feel intense upset or distress because of something your spouse complained about, pause. Then say something like: “I want to take some time to think about what you’ve said. Let’s pick this up later tonight.”

Use the intervening period to formulate a respectful answer to the complaint. The answer should be a direct response to the complaint (as in, “I’ll fix that” or “I’ll need your help in order to fix that”), with no other comments included. In our example above, the wife might say something like, “No problem. In the future, I’ll wait until we’re alone.”

The question, of course, is what should you do if you’re really hurt that your spouse raised the issue in the first place? Comfort yourself. It’s not pleasant to be criticized and, yes, you may feel hurt and/or insulted. However, in marriage we have to allow our spouse to make requests for change on our part. If we don’t, we won’t have an honest, love-filled relationship, and our marriage won’t be safe. Our spouse can learn not to raise issues but cannot learn not to feel pained by us. He or she will simply stuff the pain inside until it eventually bursts out.

So remind yourself that you have a right to your feelings, that you are a good person even if your spouse is sometimes annoyed by your behavior, that you are human and you will sometimes make mistakes, and that marriage is challenging for everyone. Think these compassionate thoughts, give yourself a treat of some kind, and move on.

To keep your marriage healthy, don’t criticize your spouse for criticizing you — don’t resort to the old switcheroo!