We’ve all said something to our mate that we regret – but toxic phrases can harm a relationship to the point of irreparable damage.
When you threaten divorce, you may regret it later. “It shows that you’re not truly committed to the marriage lasting forever, making your spouse feel rejected and preventing them from feeling safe loving you,” says Tracey Steinberg, author of Flirt For Fun & Meet THE One. But once it’s been said, the damage has been done to your marriage, even if it’s an idle threat. You’re telling your partner that you have one foot out the door. And it will eventually take its toll on him or her. “Divorce is never something to be expressed unless you’ve explored every avenue of making it work together,” says Antonia Hall, MA, a psychologist and relationship expert. “Just the mention of it in jest can cause serious hurt and doubt in someone’s mind and serious damage to the relationship.”
“Trust is imperative for a successful relationship,” says Hall. If you suspect he’s being untruthful, telling him straight out that you don’t believe him will usually backfire. Instead, say, “I’m having trouble believing you’re telling me the entire story.” It’s less inflammatory and accusatory. Focus on asking questions about a particular incident to fully open the lines of communication. “The idea is to listen rather than fire off harsh statements,” says Stacey Laura Lloyd, the Dating Expert for about.com. “By gathering all the facts first, you’ll be in a much better position to understand your spouse’s behaviour and then react appropriately.”
In the same vein are also “Calm down,” “Don’t get so defensive,” and “You’re being too sensitive.” Sometimes people make comments like these to stop their partner from being so upset – but it can make the person feel like their emotions aren’t justified, valid, or being heard. “You want your partner to feel safe showing and voicing their vulnerability without fear of judgment,” says Laurel House, a dating and empowerment coach. So, they may get even more mad. “If your intent is to make them less upset and agitated, you’ll have the exact opposite outcome,” says Lloyd. “These phrases are perceived as demeaning directives that belittle and degrade your partner.” And they’ll respond with anger, volatility and hostility. “Rather than telling them how to feel and react to the matter at hand, you’ll be better able to resolve things by letting them vent and listening carefully to what they’re saying,” Lloyd says.
It’s likely obvious that something is wrong. So, when you say “nothing,” you’re being passive aggressive, and you make it seem like you’re afraid of bringing up something that could start a fight. That’s why you’re encouraging your partner to start one for you. “Fighting can be a healthy part of a long-term relationship,” says Andrea Syrtash, a relationship expert and author of Cheat on Your Husband (with Your Husband): How to Date Your Spouse. “It’s not that you fight but how you fight. Don’t worry about disagreeing or not being on the same page,” says Syrtash. “When you communicate through your differences – and actually hear each other – you’re likely to make breakthroughs and/or find common ground.” But when you avoid fighting, the issue is likely to worsen. “Being able to communicate your feelings is the only way to work through the inevitable conflicts between you and your sweetheart,” says Hall. “Acting like nothing is wrong is a lose-lose situation that will lead to frustration and could easily escalate the issue at hand.” Instead, sit down and talk it out as calmly and respectfully as possible.
When you say “whatever,” it can make your mate feel like you’re minimising and dismissing their feelings. “There’s nothing positive or upbeat about saying ‘Whatever,’” says relationship expert and coach Julie Spira. “It usually comes with the tone of a disgruntled spouse.” Men, in particular, are programmed to please and be the hero, says Spira. So, when they’re asked ‘What’s wrong?’ it can catch a man off-guard, especially if he thinks he’s been keeping you happy, she says. “The best thing you can do if he responds with nothing is just smile,” says Spira. “Whatever problems were brewing just might dissipate with a smile and hug. When he’s ready to talk, he’ll let you know.”
“You’re always late.” “You never put away the laundry.” When you use these phrases, they’re rarely truthful or productive, and always hurtful. You’re telling your partner that they can never do anything right and that you don’t think they can change. “When you say these words, you’re essentially making a character assassination,” says Syrtash. Studies show that when you put your partner’s character down, you’re even more likely to head for divorce. Next time, Steinberg says, “Sweetly ask for exactly what you want and tell them how happy it would make you.” You might say, “Sweetheart, it would make me so happy if you pick up your socks from next to the bed in the mornings.”
“When you start a sentence this way, you’re putting your partner on the defence,” says Syrtash. “This is a passive-aggressive way to communicate your needs.” Your partner shouldn’t feel pressured to do something to prove their love or that they don’t want to do. “You’re testing your partner when you say things like this,” says Syrtash. “Your partner shouldn’t feel like they’re on trial to prove their love.” Instead, make a request in a non-confrontational and direct way. “Approach your parter authentically, and in a way that connects you, rather in a way that creates a divide,” says Hall. You might say, “I miss spending time with you, and I’d like to go out to dinner this weekend.” That phrasing will likely get you what you want.
When you’re in a relationship, you shouldn’t have to earn respect. Rather, it should be given unconditionally. That’s why you’re being offensive and insulting when you say comments like “I’m going to do it anyway; I don’t care what you say” or “You look like you’ve put on a few kilos.” Your partner thinks you’re saying they’re not good enough. “You don’t want to belittle, put down or marginalise your partner,” says House. “You’ll be initiating insecurity, defensiveness, resentment and anger. You’re cracking the foundation and those cracks go deep and can be hard to repair.”
This is a classic example of something you shouldn’t say, pretty much ever. No one likes to be told they’re dumb or feel belittled. “The unspoken and unwelcome message is that you’re smarter than your partner,” says Lloyd. “This type of comment does nothing to remedy the situation at hand.” When things go how you predicted rather than how your spouse expected, they are more than aware of the outcome, says Lloyd. And they don’t need to be reminded.
“The dishwasher won’t get unpacked on its own.” “Do I look like a babysitter?” Words of sarcasm may seem harmless at first, but they can be used to dig at your partner and communicate that you’ve been frustrated by an unmet expectation. “Sarcastic comments that put your partner down will erode the relationship and are likely to leave your partner feeling frustrated,” says Hall. She suggests that you deal with the issue from a loving and genuine place, which is more likely to be heard by your partner.
“While ‘stupid’ isn’t a curse word, it’s hurtful,” says April Masini, a relationship and etiquette expert and author. “It’s often worse than any other word.” The same goes for “What’s wrong with you?” “What kind of father/mother does that?” or “That’s an awful idea.” Your partner wants you to be his cheerleader, not feel like you’re on different teams or that you don’t believe in him. You shouldn’t be his biggest critic, but rather, his biggest fan. “Supporting your partner is an essential part of a happy, healthy and successful relationship,” says Hall. “Unsupportive phrases will wear on your partner’s self-esteem, and ultimately, the relationship. Show you care about your partner, and they’ll be far more likely to want to be supportive and caring back.”
When you care more about yourself than your spouse, you often start sentences with “I.” “I want that pair of shoes.” “Just get it done; I don’t care what happens along the way.” Instead of it being about your partner, it’s all about you. And your partner may even fear that you’re going to cheat on him or her. “If you tell him that he can’t meet your needs, he may assume that you’ll find someone who will,” says House. “That’s initiating and instilling insecurity and jealousy. Name calling and threats are unhealthy and hard to forget.” Remember that your partner isn’t a mind reader, says Samantha Burns, a relationship counsellor, dating coach and author of the ebook Love Successfully: 10 Secrets You Need to Know Right Now. “So if you’re feeling dissatisfied in your relationship, it’s important to address your needs in a calm, non-blaming way,” says Burns. “As soon as your partner processes something as a complaint, they’re more likely to shut down since they may feel that no matter how hard they try, it’s never good enough.” She suggests trying a ‘compliment sandwich,’ where you praise your partner for the effort they’re putting in currently or have given in the past; then tell them specifically what could be improved or what you need from them; and end with another positive compliment. You might say, “I really appreciated that last week you came home early from work. What I really need is more quality time with you during the weeknights so that I feel more connected to you. When you carve out time to give me your undivided attention, I feel so loved.”
When you’re angry or disappointed in your partner, it’s easy to start making comparisons. “Never compare your current spouse to any prior relationships,” says Mike Goldstein, founder and lead dating coach of EZ Dating Coach. “If the relationship was so amazing with your ex, you’d probably still be with that person.” Focus on constructive conversation instead, saying something like, “You’d make me really happy if you did XYZ.” And you’re more likely to get your needs met when you keep your ex out of the equation. “In this moment of dissatisfaction, you’re minimising the things that you adore and cherish about your partner and maximising an idealised version of your ex,” Burns says.
You may despise your mother-in-law. “But never touch that one unless you want big trouble,” says Masini. “There is no defence that your partner can offer that will offset your insult.” Only speak of her in respectful terms and frame any concerns in the context of wanting to be helpful (“Her house is always so cold – do you think we should look into problems with the heat?”). The same goes for your partner’s children from prior relationships, no matter how offensive you find them, says Masini. Otherwise, expect major backlash.
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