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For those of us looking for the secret to lasting love and marital bliss, know this—all roads lead to intimacy. Every headline you click on and every expert you talk to will share the same secret ingredient to lasting love: deep intimacy. But just as there is more than one way to bake a cake, growing and nurturing intimacy in a relationship is a lot harder than it looks.

It’s all well and good when you’re in the honeymoon stage and everything you say to one another feels like a secret that thrills the heart. It’s another thing entirely a year or two in when your guy has just said something unbearably condescending or terribly thoughtless. In situations like this, you would much rather bare your teeth than your heart.

So, the real question is: What can a woman do to preserve intimacy in her relationship when a fight seems inevitable?

While there are many good solutions to this problem, I have recently come across a mind-blowingly simple yet powerful approach that couples who are masters at intimacy already practice: They just say “Ouch!”


Here’s How This Magic Word Works

I first heard this secret from a friend, who read it in a book called First, Kill All The Marriage Counselors (Don’t worry, I’ll come back to this!) by Laura Doyle. Doyle explains that saying “Ouch!” when your partner says something that makes you angry is the key to uncovering and expressing the underlying wound in the situation and stopping a fight in its tracks.

Doyle explains that when we are mad at our spouse, 100 percent of the time it’s because we are hurt. Somewhere below our fury lie feelings of rejection, abandonment, disappointment, insult, or embarrassment. When we suppress these feelings and react in defensiveness and anger, we push our partner away and create distance that takes time and energy to repair. When we tap into those hurt feelings and express them first, before any retaliatory words are flung, we make ourselves vulnerable and invite our partner into an opportunity for deeper intimacy.

Doyle offers a great example: “Let’s say your husband punches you verbally by saying, ‘I don’t understand why you’re so tired all the time. All you do is stay home with the kids all day.’” Doyle explains this is when you want to say “Ouch!”

When we give in to the anger, instead of tapping into the hurt, Doyle explains that we are much more likely to retaliate with something like, “Maybe I wouldn’t be tired all the time if you would lift a finger to help me out once in a while!”

See the difference? When we say “Ouch!” we give our partner the opportunity to apologize for the (most likely) unintended wound, and your intimacy deepens. When we lash out, we create a battleground.

Here’s Why You Shouldn’t ‘Kill All the Marriage Counselors’

Doyle’s advice here is genius, although the witty title of her book is a bit misleading. Let me explain.

Doyle had some bad experiences with marriage counseling when she and her spouse sought help after five years. According to Doyle, marriage counseling made matters worse. Then, after talking to real happily married couples who had been married for years, Doyle discovered what she considers to be several basic truths about achieving intimacy in marriage, and it transformed her marriage—no marriage counselors needed.

But before you go kill off all the marriage counselors, I’m happy to report that this powerful little word lines up nicely with years of research by, well, marriage counselors.

After studying couples for more than forty-five years, Dr. John Gottman has been able to identify several traits that make couples either “Masters” or “Disasters” at sustaining intimacy in marriage. According to Dr. Gottman, one of the traits of the Masters is that they avoid criticism or blame and instead focus on their own needs. That is, Dr. Gottman has found that relationship Masters find a way to ignore the temptation to lash out at their partner and say something like “Ouch!” instead.

Every Master has their own way of avoiding what Dr. Gottman refers to as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling—and instead expressing their hurt and needs. Dr. Gottman talks a lot about this kind of repair or “any statement or action—silly or otherwise—that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.”

“Ouch!” is a fantastic repair word. Stopping a fight in its tracks seems daunting, but simply saying “Ouch!” seems possible. As Doyle warns, it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. But the more times you see the opportunity to choose vulnerability over hostility in the rearview mirror, the better you will get at recognizing the perfect “Ouch!” moments just in time.

For more repair words that can get you on the right track, Gottman has a helpful list here.

Photo Credit: Tanja Heffner