From Conflict to Connection: How Ouch and Oops Can Transform Your Relationship

Couples often get stuck in a predictable conflict cycle. You know the drill. You’re partner says something and you can’t help but respond negatively. Then you’re off to the races. Today I want to teach you about how you can use a simple exercise to help you stop negative conflict patterns in your relationship

Understanding conflict patterns

Most relationships have predictable conflict patterns that you can see coming a mile away. Whether it’s money, sex, the house, travel, or whatever, there are certain topics that you know will get a rise out of your partner. And vice-versa. If either of you is off your game, seemingly small things can quickly escalate into conflicts. 

Brain and conflict

I’ve done other videos describing how the brain works in connection with conflict and I will put a link in the description below for you to check out. I want to remind you of a few concepts about the brain right now. When we’re triggered by our partner, using Dan Siegel’s hand model of the brain, our thumb is out.  That means our amygdala (the fight/flight/freeze part of the brain) is activated and it’s tough to use our thinking brain in moments like that.  However, with practice, you can develop a toolbox full of resources to use when your thumb is out. And you must try not to have big conflicts when you’re triggered because more often than not they won’t go well.  

Let’s take an imaginary couple, Tony and Stephan from New Jersey as an example. I’m from Jersey originally and will always have a special place in my heart for my home state. Ok. Anyway, Tony pulls up the joint credit card on his phone and sees that there was a charge for $500 for self-tanning supplies. Without thinking he confronts Stephan and says “You look like an orange.” Stephan has a choice at that moment. He can take the bait and respond in kind with “You’re one to talk about how I look, you haven’t been to the gym in weeks.” And then they are off to the raises.  

If Tony and Stephan had known this exercise I’m about to teach you, maybe things would’ve gone differently. 

Ouch/Oops Exercise

The exercise I’m talking about is called Ouch/Oops. It’s pretty simple in concept, but like most simple things, it takes practice to get it in your bones. When your partner says something that hurts, instead of responding with an attack or shutting down, you can simply say “Ouch.” If your partner is in a good place, they can take that as a cue and say “oops” if they didn’t mean to say something hurtful. 

How does this work?

Using the example of Tony and Stephan, if Tony said to Stephan “You look like an orange”, Stephan could’ve responded with “Ouch.” Then if Tony was able to take the cue, he could’ve responded with “oops.” Conflict averted! From there, they can either take a break until they have cooled down enough to talk about what happened or continue the conversation.  When they re-engaged, Tony could say something like: “Oops, I shouldn’t have said that. I’m just worried about how much money we spend on the joint card.  Can we talk about that?”

Don’t use this as a weapon

Anything can be used as a weapon in your relationship. Even a positive tool like this. Remember, you’re on the same team. If you start getting into a power struggle or using helpful tools like this as a weapon with your partner, it’s time to seek support from a professional. 

How to use Ouch Effectively

To put it as simply as possible, when your partner says something that hurts, makes you angry or is painful in any way, then you say ouch. Try and say it as calmly and grounded as you can. Don’t scream it at your partner or it’s probably not going to be effective. This is meant to be a way to diffuse conflict and use it as such. 

What do I do when my partner says ouch?

If your partner says Ouch, listen to them. It’s not a moment to get defensive or push back. It’s a moment to slow down, think back on what you just said, and then ideally say oops.  If you’re feeling overly optimistic, take some responsibility for what you just said that hurt their feelings.  Or if you don’t remember what it was that you said that caused the ouch, ask them in a loving, non-defensive way. Again, this will take practice and it will get easier over time.  

How to use Oops effectively

Oops, can be used preventively or after your partner says Ouch.  Thinking back to the example with Tony and Stephan, if Tony had said “You look like an orange” and then caught himself and said “Oops, my bad, I’m sorry, that wasn’t called for” that would be great.  Otherwise, if your partner says Ouch, slow down and think about what happened.  Ask questions. Take responsibility. 

Like learning anything new, this will take practice and time. When you’re first experimenting with this exercise it’s not going to work out perfectly and don’t expect that it will. Try this out, talk about it together, and then experiment again. Ideally, you’ll get to the point where Ouch or Oops can be used like safe words to stop conflict in its tracks. I’ve seen many, many couples use this simple tool to stop repetitive conflicts in their relationship, and with some practice and experimentation, you can do it, too. 

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Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett, LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist with an office in Denver, Colorado. He works virtually with folks in California and Colorado. Tom feels passionately about helping people have better relationships. The purpose of this blog is not to provide advice or to take the place of working with a mental health professional. For more information please visit the homepage.