Almost every relationship article mentions the Big C: Communication. But what if your words are doing more harm than good?
Language is a powerful force, and what you say to your partner on impulse could be doing a great deal of damage. Here are the top three most dangerous phrases to let slip from your lips.
1. “You Always… You Never…”
The classic communication killer. Nothing is more guaranteed to aggravate your partner than to hear this kind of sweeping generalization. The problem with “You always…” “You never…” is that it’s so easy to let slip in the heat of the moment, and what your partner hears is, “You’re useless. You always disappoint me.” Even if it’s over something as trivial as doing the dishes.
Harriet Pappenheim, LCSW. has over 30 years’ experience in relationship and couples therapy, helping couples and individuals find a deeper content and personal fulfillment in their relationships. She is a founding therapist of Park Avenue Relationship Consultants (PARC), a group of expertly trained clinicians based in NYC, specializing in couples therapy, family therapy and marriage counseling.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
You may be frustrated, and simply wanting to make a point, but what the other person hears is an attack on his or her very character. That hurts. Lines of communication clamp shut with a vengeance. Your partner will automatically become defensive and is unlikely to really hear another word you utter.
Hyperbolic criticism like this only serves to push your loved one away and won’t get you any closer to having your needs met.
What to say instead:
“I feel ‘x’ when you do/don’t do ‘x’… How can we sort this out?”
“I really appreciate it when you do ‘x’.”
As you see, starting with “I” rather than “You” is often a good start! Beginning with “I” turns your words from a blanket accusation into an invitation to talk, and to come to a resolution.
2. “I don’t care.”
This is a no-brainer. Your relationship is based on caring, so why sabotage it with this thoughtless phrase? To say “I don’t care” in any context — I don’t care what we have for dinner, I don’t care that the kids are fighting, I don’t care where we go later — automatically implies a lack of emotional investment in the other person, and in your shared life.
The most important predictor of a long-lasting relationship, according to John Gottman, is quite simply whether or not couples regularly perform simple acts of kindness, such as showing interest when the what each other has to say. If your partner makes a bid for your attention and you react with “I don’t care” (either spoken or implied) — it’s going to inflict damage.
What to say instead:
Pretty much anything, as long as it conveys interest and involvement in whatever your partner wants to share with you!
3. “Never mind… it doesn’t matter.”
Of course, there will be times when you genuinely mean this. But too often we use these words in a dismissive sense, eg. “Never mind, I’ll just do it myself,” or “No point talking about it!”
Both phrases in this sense imply that you are rejecting your partner’s input, deliberately shutting her or him out. It can also be passive aggressive — trying to make an implied point about your partner’s behavior, or attitude, rather than having a frank and upfront conversation.
What to say instead:
“I would really love to get your input on ‘x’…”
“I’m in a tight spot here, please can you help me out?”
Don’t forget to say “thank you!” Such a small thing, but those two words make all the difference. Unsurprisingly, couples who thank each other regularly feel more supported and appreciated, helping them to get through periods of tension when they do arise.
No doubt, we all have times when our partners frustrate and annoy us. Expressing that frustration might just seem like speaking your mind, or being honest. But often, it’s just not constructive.
Ask yourself, “Is this a real issue or just a passing annoyance?” If the answer is the former, try to use neutral, constructive language that focuses on actions rather than character, and avoids placing blame.
That doesn’t mean you should watch every word you say, all the time. But more sensitivity around hurtful phrases goes a long way. And making the effort to reinforce your love with positive phrases — “Thank you,” “I love you” — is worth it a hundredfold.