Marriage Wisdom: The BEST Reaction To An Angry Spouse? Acknowledge Their Feelings BEFORE Expressing Your Point Of View

By Marc Sadoff

The need to defend oneself is a powerful reflex. So powerful that it makes people say things that only gets them into more trouble. Showing that you see how you may be responsible for causing your partner’s hurt or anger and that you care about it enough to do something goes against our natural instinct to protect ourselves.

I saw a special on Discovery cable about the training of Secret Service agents who protect the President. The head of training the agents said that when most people hear a gunshot they have a natural reflex to move away from the sound of the shot. He saw one of his difficult tasks as retraining his agents to MOVE TOWARD the sound so the agent could quickly disarm the assassin or protect the president.

When a person feels attacked by their partner the most natural human response is to defend oneself. Defending can be through defensive arguments, by withdrawal or by attacking back. The goal of the First Pants…then Shoes method is to respond to the anger of another without making things worse by defending yourself right off the bat. You can always defend yourself later. But once you’ve begun defending the other person legitimately feels you are not listening or that you don’t care.

We call that ‘Putting on your shoes before your pants.’

At some time growing up you probably learned that if you put your shoes on before you put on your pants, then putting on your pants becomes a difficult, if not impossible task. We learn this sequence and rarely make the mistake of reversing the order later in life; because of the difficulty that it creates.

The shoes in our analogy represents defending oneself by making excuses or trying to get our point of view heard first. The metaphor of ‘First Pants …then Shoes’ reflects the idea that anger can be handled better for all concerned if we deal with it in a certain order.

The first instinct is to defend yourself. But instead you respond to your partner in a way that shows that you are responsible and that you care about how she was affected. This means that when you hear your partner’s angry offended tone of voice your first you MOVE TOWARD THE ANGER in a way that shows you’re interested in addressing it. Yeah, relationships are tough. This almost makes the Secret Service Training look attractive, doesn’t it?

Without accepting all the blame can you see where maybe you made a small mistake. Are you even 2% responsible for the problem and how that affects your partner? Your tone of voice? Your assumptions?….

Is it possible that you were insensitive, fearful, dishonest, mean or selfish? Are you capable of saying any of these things about yourself? Are you capable of saying these things before you get the other to understand your point of view?

For example: Kevin is late again in coming home from the office. Kevin knows that his wife , Shonda, has reason to be upset that he was late for dinner, but was so irritated by the tone of her scolding voice that he failed to acknowledge her feelings and instead defended himself by saying angrily “It’s not so big a deal. You’ve been late, before too!” which only made her more mad.

If he had first acknowledged that indeed he was late and showed that he understood how he affected her, he could then proceed to talk about being irritated by her tone of voice. She would not be so infuriated at him for invalidating her feelings that perhaps she would then be willing to listen to his feelings about being being talked to in a scolding manner.

The emphasis here is on the sequence of acknowledging the other’s feelings before getting the other to understand YOUR point of view. That means listening and reflecting feelings of your partner, even when you believe that the thoughts, those feelings are based on, are inaccurate.

Kevin demonstrates this if he says “I’m sorry that my being late again hurt you.”; even when he knows that the accident on the freeway coming home from work is an understandable excuse. Shonda would rather hear that he’s concerned with her experience than that he’s got a good excuse.

The ‘First Pants then Shoes’ technique deals first with the issue of responsibility. First acknowledge that your behavior affected the other person, then defend yourself by explaining your side. Isn’t it true that Kevin’s history of being late and the fact that he is late again is the cause of Shonda’s hurt and angry feelings? What does Kevin lose by simply acknowledging this fact? He’ll have time to give his reasons later. If he’s more concerned with being right than with how his wife feels he will be right, but he will also be alone. He’s distanced Shonda by showing her that it was more important to defend himself than to show that he cares about how she felt.

If he fails to acknowledge how it makes sense for Shonda to be upset he’ll spend hours arguing with her, when he could be done with the conflict in three minutes!!

Picture your most comfortable pair of jeans or slacks. Now see the words ‘I did something’ embossed on the right pant leg and the word “I understand how that could affect you.” embossed on on the left pant leg. The shoes represent trying to get the other to see your viewpoint, rationale and feelings about a situation first. Now go ahead and put your shoes on first. Yes, they go on! “Halleleuia! I got my excuse out there first. I made sure that my excuse was loudly proclaimed. Now that I’ve explained myself she’ll stop hammering me won’t she? I’ll show her that I care about her feelings AFTER I exonerate myself. Oh sure, I care about what you went through Shonda.” Now try getting your pants on (showing her that you’re aware your behavior affected her and that you care). It’s very difficult to do. Once Shonda had to fight to get her feelings heard she becomes even harder for Kevin to console. She doesn’t want to fight to have her feelings heard.

This is a shame because Kevin actually does care about Shonda’s feelings… He was just more interested in defending himself. He put on his shoes first. It’s just the sequence! Show you understand first..then defend, or present your point of view.

It sounds simple doesn’t it? It is simple. It’s just not easy. But, it can be done.

BLAM Fam: How important is it to “put on your pants before your shoes” when dealing with your angry spouse? Thoughts???

Marc Sadoff has been a psychotherapist for over 25 years treating people with depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorders. Twenty-two years ago he began his work in domestic violence men’s groups and continues to co-facilitate a weekly group for abusive men in Los Angeles, CA. Visit him at

5 replies
  1. Dan Tres Omi
    Dan Tres Omi says:

    I work with young people and focus on conflict resolution. What we try to do is to teach them to avoid getting to the point where they have to fight. I dug the example you use with Kevin and Shonda. My thing is that Kevin knows that if he is late, Shonda will be upset but Kevin is late again. What would our charges say about this? Kevin should do what he can not to be late. I think that would demonstrate to Shonda that he is a. listening b. acknowledging and c. actually putting it into action by coming home on time.

    Usually when our mates are angry its for a legitimate reason and he or she will continue to be upset until we discuss it maturely and fix it. Beefs are going to happen and people will say harsh things to one another. I say, and actually recommend, that folks let it all out, marinate on it, and then come back to the table and discuss it thoroughly and then figure what needs to be done to rectify. Then again, we tell our charges, do what you must so it doesn't have to go there.

    My recent post

  2. Yolanda
    Yolanda says:

    OH MY GOODNESS!! This is so much easier said than done but I know that me and my fiancee' will be 1000% better off if we can start to work on this now. I am so grateful for your site. I learn so much here. You are doing serious work!

  3. Kieva Bankins
    Kieva Bankins says:

    This truly hits close to home…thank you!

  4. 2close4comfort
    2close4comfort says:

    Excellent post!!! I see very clearly how I'm going about this the wrong way (shoes before pants) that's why 99% of our stuff never gets resolved.

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