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How can I get my wife to change her nasty tone?

Group Therapy is a relationship advice column that asks readers to contribute their wisdom.

A reader writes: Like many couples dealing with the stress of little kids, work and social life, my wife and I argue a lot. But I think we'd argue less explosively - and more constructively - if she'd drop her "tone." I rarely take what she's saying to heart because I can't get past her disdainful delivery. I've told her it's possible to express her feelings in a way that's not hurtful, but she says that would involve filtering herself, which wouldn't be honest. Neither of us wants to fight, but we're at an impasse. What should we do?

Don't engage when she uses "the tone"

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I hate it when "honesty" is used as an excuse to be unkind. Your wife is being honestly rude. One of my family members did that and I told him that he upset people far more than he needed to by talking to them as if he thought they were stupid. Perhaps you should disengage with your wife when she speaks to you that way. Try saying, "When you can speak to me respectfully, I will be willing to discuss it." Or, if worse comes to worse, try reverse therapy, then ask her how it felt.

Eleanor Arnold, Coquitlam, B.C.

See the issue from both sides

Stress aside, a good relationship involves respectful differences of opinion. You can see a harsh tone as a sign of honesty or as a lack of respect. Similarly, you can see filtering as respectful or you can see it as repressive. None of these perspectives is inherently more right, but it's important that you both (1) understand how the other feels and (2) demonstrate respect for the other's position. Agree to take her more seriously in exchange for her trying to use a less threatening tone, and be forgiving of slip-ups. If there truly is love and respect in the relationship, both should be willing to compromise a little.

Jeremy Greene, Toronto

Help her learn communication skills

You're right, she's wrong - plain and simple. You're not asking her to be less than honest in what she says, only how she says it. "Filtering" one's self is a prerequisite to success in our society. Does your wife not "filter" herself at work? If not, she wouldn't have held a job for long. Building positive communication skills is essential to a successful relationship. Get some counselling - maybe she'll listen to a professional (who will confirm what you're saying) where she won't to you.

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Scot Martin, Toronto

The final word

Ah. I love it when the great minds here at Group Therapy come together in consensus. We are totally in your corner, big guy, all four of us. You know what I have never understood? I've never understood people who treat their loved ones worse and with less respect than they would a total stranger or minor acquaintance.

Would your wife adopt that "tone" of hers (and I can just hear it, I'm imagining a sneering combination of Ann Coulter and some socially maladroit IT guy) with, as Scot says, a co-worker? Your kid's soccer coach? A grocery cashier? No? She wouldn't think of it? Then why should you, her loving husband, with whom she claims she hates having to fight, be the only person in the world to suffer the poisonously unadulterated lashings of "The Tone"?

Yes, with our nearest and dearest we tend to let it all hang out emotionally, the same way we sometimes go all morning without worrying about brushing our teeth or arranging our hair in a style more pleasing than the early morning look I like to call "Einstein in a Wind Tunnel." We allow ourselves to unclench when we're home with our families, which is one of the truly wonderful advantages of human intimacy. However. Just as there's a line when it comes to personal grooming below which you do not want to dip (e.g. I don't recommend moving in for a little tonsil hockey if you've been rocking the no-toothpaste/full-Einstein mode all morning), there is a similar line when it comes to manners.

She calls staying above this line "filtering." I say the use of deodorant is a kind of filtering too. Filtering can be a very good thing when it comes to human relationships and familial harmony. Yeah, filtering is often an absolute necessity.

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What I'm saying - what all four of us are saying - is basic. It's rock-bottom relationship etiquette 101. Respectful communication. Duh. Didn't we establish this way back in the therapy-forward 70s? It's essential. It's non-negotiable. Demand it.

Lynn Coady is the award-winning author of novels Strange Heaven and Mean Boy.

Next week's question: My grandfather passed away recently after a brief illness. I was very close to him and it was a shock. My mother-in-law sent me a one line text message of condolence. This upset me as she knew I was close to him; I felt she should have at least sent an e-mail or called. I was more upset when I found out she sent flowers to my parents, whom she hardly knows, and friended my uncle (whom she met once) on Facebook to ask about funeral arrangements. Yet when I saw her a few days afterward, there was no acknowledgment of my loss from her or my father-in-law. I am deeply hurt. Should I confront her?

Let's hear from you

E-mail us at with your advice to the above question or to submit your own dilemma. All questions are published anonymously, but we will include your name and hometown if we use your response (it will be edited).

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About the Author
Relationship Columnist

Lynn Coady writes the Group Therapy column for The Globe and Mail's Life section. She is the award-winning author of the novels Strange Heaven, Saints of Big Harbour and Mean Boy. Her most recent novel, The Antagonist, will be released this September. She lives in Edmonton, where she is Senior Editor of Eighteen Bridges magazine. More

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