Communication Tools: Stings and Rationalization

August 29, 2022

My grandparents struggled in their marriage, but they would never have thought of getting a divorce. In their day, the reasons for getting married had more to do with social acceptance and cultural survival reasons. In the 60’s and 70’s this changed dramatically as couples didn’t experience the social and cultural pressures and the whole reason for getting married changed to companionship. This kind of marriage required a very different set of skills that my parents’ generation were unprepared for.

In a companionship marriage couples need to learn to be patient, understanding, make sacrifices, share their faith, and especially learn how to communicate. These skills were rarely modeled in my grandparents’ generation, and my parents’ generation didn’t know how to have such a marriage. Consequently, the divorce rate sky rocketed without the social pressures to struggle through the hard times.

Last week I began a series on communication skills that can help couples talk to each other better. I wrote about reflective listening, that is telling someone something they have already told you to make sure you are talking about the same thing. This week I start with “The Sting.” These are sarcastic remarks that might be meant as humor, but often reveal sore points in the relationship, and destroy free communication. There is no place for stings in a healthy marriage.

I would hurt my wife with “witty” comments, at least I was entertained by my stinging remarks. She was not! We agreed that I would stop stinging her, and fifteen minutes later I remarked, “You really bled every drop of gas out of the gas tank today didn’t you?”

She said calmly and with authority, “That is a sting. Start over.” She was right. We agreed that both of us were just $5.00 of gas in at a time, and we should just fill the tank up because we weren’t saving any money, and we had fought too many times over the gas tank. That was over three decades ago and we haven’t fought over the gas tank again since.

With her help I did learn not to sting her or others any more. We came up with what I now call Earley’s Rule of Romance: If you start a statement toward your spouse with the words, “You are…” the next words out of your mouth have got to be “beautiful”, “handsome”, “intelligent”, “funny”, etc. It works great. I highly recommend it.

Another helpful communication tool is “Rationalization.” This is putting off an important discussion until a better time in the future when things are less tense or embarrassing. Sometimes this is necessary when the spouse has had a hard day and vents his/her frustration on the other. Sometimes this venting can occur in places that are inappropriate, like gatherings with coworkers, family, or friends. Rationalization is when we wait until there is a better time to deal with our hurt or embarrassed feelings until both feel better about things or you can be alone.

There is a caution. Don’t make a habit of rationalizing hurt feelings away. For example, “I know s/he got reprimanded on the job, and is in a bad mood, so I won’t push that mean remark about the way I drive.” When the setting is better it is crucial that you come back to the hurt feelings and discuss them. If you don’t you will build up anger, and one day explode, often at something relatively small. Both you and your spouse will be surprised at the level of anger displayed over something that seems so small, and neither will be able to see how all the unfinished business of the past built up.

This is illustrated in what I call “The Parable of the Dagwood Sandwich”, named after the husband Dagwood, in the comic strip “Blondie.” It was an amazing multilayered cold cut sandwich topped with an olive and a toothpick. Imagine your wife has had a bad week and she knows it. She wants to make peace with you by doing something nice and makes you a Dagwood Sandwich. As she brings it to you she trips and it hits the floor, mayonnaise side down and is covered with hair. Normally you would laugh, but you explode in anger. It surprises both you and your wife. Why were you so angry at losing a piece of bread? When we rationalize our need to communicate away it just builds up until we explode in anger.

Did you try to use reflective listening this week? Are you a stinger? Do you get back to those topics that need to be dealt with or just rationalize them away? If you want to get better at communication you will need to practice. I hope that you will! (To find out more about Al Earley or read previous articles, see