Mike and Ashley came to see me because they wanted their relationship to improve. There were no affairs, and there was no abuse. They just didn’t feel connected. Married for almost 12 years, they had four kids, two dogs, and a lovely house. Their cars were paid off, and they had very little debt. He worked a job that he liked. They worked jobs that they loved. Their kids were healthy. And their life felt bland. You see, when things were good, they were good. 

But, and there is always a but, when things were bad, they went nuclear fast. 

They almost always have painful experiences. Those painful experiences from past experiences can cast shadows on our current relationships. People are complicated messes. Even, perhaps especially, the people we love.  

As I came to know Ashley and Mike, it struck me that their pasts were strewn with relationships full of pain.  Almost everyone who should have protected Ashley and fought for her in the past failed to do either. Worse, some of the men who should have been rocks of shelter for her intentionally brought pain to her. In Mike’s past, there seemed to be a cavalcade of people who constantly told him he wasn’t enough. Eventually, he would fail and fall short, so he should save himself that pain by not even trying. One of his parents could always explain the pitfalls of what he hoped to do, from trying out for the High School baseball team to loaning the family push mower to the neighbor. 

These stories are a common theme when I explore the histories of couples in my therapy room. We regularly bring our past pains and hurts into our current relationships. We may have often grown up with examples we want to avoid following in our marriages today. Mike’s mom exploded, and his dad refused to talk to anyone for days when a fight broke out in their house until the divorce. Ashley’s mom lived a life of patterned infidelity, and her dad crawled inside a bottle, escaping into the world of his sports teams and TV shows.  

Unsurprisingly, they were both sensitive to these behaviors in their spouses. Ashley worried Mike would cheat on her without evidence that he was doing anything untoward.  Mike was wary of any level of intensity from Ashley. When he felt this intensity (that he couldn’t define), he would withdraw. When he withdrew, Ashley would increase her intensity. And the cycle would spin.  

This is where their fights would go rogue. They would each reach a point where it seemed they no longer cared about the rules they agreed would govern their relationship. They would skip into self-defense mode, engaging in behaviors that they knew would bring pain to the relationship. 

When they feel their loved one’s behavior is painful, they give themselves a hall pass to do bad behavior. Let’s say that Ashley approaches Mike with something bothering her. She starts out well, matching facts and feelings. She expresses that she knows it might be her past bothering her and nothing he has done. But then things go sideways. Mike rolls his eyes and starts to disagree but then gives up and just mutters, “Whatever.” 

Then she raises her voice. 

He withdraws more because he feels threatened by her raising her voice. She starts to punctuate each word for emphasis and bring up things in the past that he has done even though they have previously worked through them. 

Now he’s ready to engage in all the behaviors he knows she hates even though he’s previously agreed not to do those things. In turn, she can do everything she knows irritates him and that he finds hurtful. They both get to do whatever they want because they feel hurt or frustrated or whatever negative emotion we want to put in here. They both know that they will have to deal with the fallout later. Probably about half of the couples I see will make some apology, but for now, they will do whatever they want.   That’s the power of a hall pass. You get to do what you want because you feel threatened or hurt. Of course, that’s incredibly damaging to relationships. It might feel good at the moment, but it destroys relationships and hurts the people we say we love. 

So, how should they respond?

We have to come to the place where we do what we do because it is right and best for the relationship.

First, it is good to recognize behaviors and apply discernment to them. It’s OK to remind each other what behaviors we strive to have when arguing.  If she can’t control herself, he can tell her he will not talk to her until they can talk productively. If she feels he is avoiding her, she can call that out. He might say, “Ashley, I don’t think we’re being very productive right now; let’s take an hour to calm down. Could we talk in one hour?” What if Mike isn’t doing those things, but Ashley can see her statements bother him by his actions. He’s doing that thing he does with this jawline when he’s upset. He’s not violating the six rules. He’s not calling her names. He’s not doing anything! But she knows! Because she knows him!

So, she starts yelling. She gives herself a hall pass. He could respond as listed above. He could even admit his frustration with her and kindly point out that he’s not violating any of their ground rules for communication while he is frustrated. In this scenario, Ashley is caught in a place where she’s reacting to his emotions and not his actions. That’s a dangerous and damaging place to be.


We use the word because as the transition point. I just sat with someone who told me they did things they knew weren’t right “because…” I told them, “There’s always a because, but it’s rarely a good reason.” Almost everyone knows the right and wrong way to communicate. Most people give themselves a hall pass when they feel distressed or in pain.

Please note that saying, “Let’s take a step back,” is not the same as just shutting down to avoid the pain. One is intentionally taking a step back to move the relationship forward. The other is done to avoid discomfort and for the benefit of the individual only. That’s the rub in relationships; a healthy relationship requires a steadfast commitment to what is best. We must set aside our fears and pain and engage our spouses healthily. 

Here is a list of ways you might engage while keeping safe boundaries and moving the relationship forward.

  1. Follow good rules of communication. For our house, we endeavor to live in the context of what we call the six rules of communication. If you want a list of those rules, go HERE or HERE.  You can also find them discussed in more detail in chapters 17 and 18 of my book, The Emotionally Secure Couple, which you can buy here. To be clear, you do not have to utilize those rules, but you and your partner must agree on some system for your communication. A system provides guide rails. It helps us understand what is expected when we are distressed in a conversation. When we are feeling overwhelmed with our emotions, we can choose poorly. When we have a system, rules, if you will, we have something to compare our behaviors against. We can take some level of thinking out of the process because by setting the rules, we did the thinking ahead of time.
  2. Do what is right regardless of the other person’s actions. This one is straightforward and simple. But, like most simple things, it takes work. In fact, it can be challenging. This idea removes the power of the word “because” that I discussed above. It takes away our opportunity to do something that we know is wrong or, at best, not helpful to the relationship because the other person did such and such. We have to come to the place where we do what we do because it is right and best for the relationship.
  3. Do not call names or attack the other person. I suppose this one could have gone under the previous point, but I am constantly amazed at how many people call their loved ones a name simply because they’re mad at them. They will just start chucking names like bombs or saying things that they know will hurt them, and they say these things because they know it will hurt them! This is insanity. Doing something that you know will bring pain to the other person is a great way to destroy all levels of emotional security and trust.
  4. Deal with what happened and how you felt about it. Communication happens on two planes: facts and feelings. Facts are what happened, and emotions are what my brain tells me about what happened. Good communication occurs when we talk about what happened and how we experienced it. “This happened, and this is how I experienced it” is a great phrase to start the conversation. Stay focused on what happened and what your brain told you about it. Avoid phrases and words that shift responsibility for your feelings to the other person.
  5. If necessary, take a step back, but set a time to re-engage the topic. Don’t be afraid to just step back and take a break when necessary. If your conversation is spinning from one fire to another, it might be prudent to step back and take a break from the conversation. Be sure to set a time that you will re-engage. It should be noted that you might need to take another break when you come back. That’s OK! It’s important to make sure that you set a time that you will intentionally re-engage. It is vital that you set an exact time and that you both agree to it. Then, give space to each other. When someone says, “Hey, I need a few moments…” we would do well to believe them. To achieve this, we have to be OK with living in the tension of knowing that there is angst and anger between us. It is incredibly tough, and it can be so life-giving.

Above all, we must focus on doing what is best for the relationship. We have to keep grace and hope as a seasoning for our actions. We cultivate the health of our relationship by our actions. To that end, it is imperative to purposely cultivate a relationship that is not just surviving but also thriving.



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