I once listened to an instructional recording of a couples’ counseling session. In it a husband and wife were revisiting a moment earlier in their week which ended in hurt feelings. Honestly, I don’t remember what the conflict was about or what was said that hurt each spouse. What I remember most was an interaction between the therapist and the husband.

Therapist: “Do you feel good or bad that you hurt your wife?”

Husband: “I didn’t mean to hurt my wife.”

Therapist: “It doesn’t matter that you didn’t mean to, do you feel good or bad that you hurt your wife?”

Husband: “I feel bad that I hurt her.”

It’s a short interaction. Take a look at it again. Does anything stick out to you? The second line from the therapist is what made me pause. I was initially pretty annoyed at the therapist. “What do you mean, it doesn’t matter if he meant to or not!” The idea that intention doesn’t matter was so foreign. I dismissed his idea as a poor choice of words.

Fast forward to a few weeks later when my wife was pointing out a continuing issue in our own marriage.

Wife: “When you get home before me and the first thing you ask me when I walk in the door is ‘What do you want for dinner?’, it communicates to me that you don’t care how my day went.

Me: “What? Of course I care how your day went. I never intended to communicate……”

And right there, I had my very own experience validating what the therapist was saying. It was shocking. I had been putting so much stock in intention. What the therapist, and my wife, were telling me was that impact far outweighs intention. To use another situation as an example, if you’re playing a sport and your opponent hits you in a way which hurts, you’re not going to care if he meant to or not. Whether he intended to hurt you, or whether it was incidental misses the point. The point is you hurt. The impact of his hitting you is pain.

Marital research has validated the idea that impact outweighs intention, as well. In research performed by PREP*, it was found that married couples who are satisfied with their relationship have a high “green bar” and a low “red bar”. The red bar represents conflict decisions, that is, decisions made in the midst of conflict. To have a low red bar a couple is making decisions in the midst of conflict that get them out of conflict. The green bar represents marital enrichment. To have a high green bar both spouses must feel the impact of love and respect from the other. If only one spouse feels that impact, it results in a low green bar. It must be both.

Impact is the key in both bars. In other words, impact outweighs intention. In the moment the impact of a person’s words and actions are what is felt by the other. If words and actions communicate to the other they are understood and valued, the likelihood of getting out of conflict quicker is higher.

Look one more time at my response to my wife when she talks about just walking in the door. My response invalidates her feeling and is more focused on defending myself than on understanding her concern. That’s not the impact I want to have on the conversation. Every conversation is going somewhere, so may we all choose words which help conversations go in a positive direction.

Think about your last conflict with your spouse. What kind of impact did your words and actions have on them? What kind of impact did they have on you? What do you need to do to make your impact match your intention of communicating care?

*If you’re interested in learning more about PREP or their research, visit them at Both Chris Taylor and Blake Engelman are certified PREP curriculum instructors.