In our closest relationships, it’s easy to speak without thinking. It seems like a good thing: We’re so comfortable with each other we can share whatever is on our mind. But sometimes it can have a negative effect. Off-the-cuff remarks can be misconstrued, and words said in frustration may cut deep.
“Couples are dying to communicate, but they can’t pull it off with a positive outcome because they’re so darn sloppy in how they lay out their words and phrases,” Becky Whetstone, a marriage and family therapist in Little Rock, Arkansas, told HuffPost. “They think they said X, their partner heard Y and, well, you know.”
We asked Whetstone and other relationship therapists to reveal some of the most harmful things partners say to each other, often without realizing the effect of their words. Below, they share the damaging phrases to avoid and offer suggestions on what to say instead.
1. “It’s not a big deal” or “You’ll get over it.”
These kinds of responses may be well-intentioned: You’re trying to help your partner keep things in perspective, hoping they’ll see that whatever they’re going through isn’t earth-shattering in the long term. But these statements can be invalidating to someone who is dealing with an emotionally fraught situation, said Miami-based marriage and family therapist Amanda Baquero . And telling them to “get over it” is only going to make them feel silly for mentioning it in the first place.
“If you want to support your partner during a difficult time, try saying something like, ‘That sounds hard. I can see why you feel that way. We can get through this together,’” she said.
2. “You’re just like your father.”
Or mother or sister or brother or whomever. Make no mistake: These are fighting words designed to push your partner’s buttons. Even if your partner was behaving like said person in a given moment, it doesn’t make hurling an insult like this any more fair or appropriate. You’re reducing them to one negative trait or behavior.
“[It’s] irresponsible and punishes your partner for family matters they may have privately shared with you or observations you may have made about their family,” said Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist Abigail Makepeace. “Also, comments like this can be especially triggering because it usually refers to traits your partner is already aware that they do not like in their parent. It does not lead to change.”
Rather than resorting to these negative blanket statements about your partner and their family, tell them what specific behavior bothered you and make a request for change, Makepeace suggested.
3. “You always ... ” or “You never ... ”
This kind of all-or-nothing language is common in moments of frustration but is rarely an accurate assessment of your partner’s behavior. Criticism, often packaged in these “you always” or “you never” statements, automatically puts your partner on the defensive.
“In all the years I’ve done couples therapy, I’ve never met a partner who doesn’t care, doesn’t listen or is guilty of always or never doing X, Y or Z 100% of the time,” Whetstone said. “Talking in absolutes and mischaracterizing your partner in this way succeeds in only one thing: getting them to disregard everything you say after that. It shuts people down when the accusation tossed is flat-out not true.”
“In all the years I’ve done couples therapy, I’ve never met a partner who doesn’t care, doesn’t listen or is guilty of always or never doing X, Y or Z 100% of the time.”
Assuming the goal is to have a productive conversation, you’ll need to take a different approach. Be specific about what your partner is doing that’s bothering you at present and focus on how it makes you feel. So instead of saying, “You’re always on your damn phone!” tell them you feel ignored or disconnected when they’re scrolling on Instagram before bed.
“When you choose your words accurately and phrase them in a way that doesn’t sound like finger-pointing, most reasonable humans will listen and work to meet your needs,” Whetstone said.
4. “You’re doing it wrong. Why can’t you just do it my way?”
It’s easy to get frustrated when your partner does something the “wrong way,” aka differently than you would. It might be something small like the haphazard way they load the dishwasher or pack for a trip, or something bigger, like the way they parent or handle an issue with a family member.
“Phrasing your advice in this way can lead your partner to feel defensive and belittled,” Baquero said. “Next time you can try saying, ‘It seems like you are having a hard time with this. I have an idea that might help. Would you like to hear it?’”
“This approach can help partners feel like they are tackling a task together instead of competing against one another,” she added.
5. “I am done.”
Going scorched earth with statements like “I’m done” or “I want a divorce” — or even “I hate you” — can do considerable damage, even if you don’t mean them. Getting angry with each other is normal. But lashing out and saying extreme things in the heat of the moment is just unhealthy, Whetstone said.
“What happens is a partner reaches a crescendo of stress, and that is the worst time to talk about your feelings,” Whetstone said. “It’s far better to calm down, then come back and calmly discuss what isn’t working. This is when we can access the better part of our personality.”
Whetstone trains her clients to understand that things said in an activated state are often exaggerations that don’t represent how they really feel. But these words can be deeply hurtful nevertheless.
“If they spoke accurately, they’d say something like, ‘In this moment I am so angry with you that I feel like I’m done, but I know that I’m not.’”
6. “You’re too sensitive.”
When your partner is upset and you brush them off by insisting they’re “too sensitive” or “too emotional,” you’re minimizing their feelings.
“It is not fair for us to decide how someone should feel,” Makepeace said. “Telling someone that their reaction is ‘too’ anything almost never helps.”
Even if you don’t fully understand or agree with their point of view, try not to pass judgment, Makepeace said. A genuine statement like “I can see why that hurt you” can go a long way toward making your partner feel heard.
7. Not saying anything.
Sometimes silence can be just as damaging as saying the wrong thing. Those who have a tendency to “stonewall” disengage when their partner is trying to have a mature conversation. They may shut down and exit the room, refusing to talk about the issue at hand. This behavior can leave the other partner feeling abandoned and rejected at a moment when emotional connection is needed, Denver psychotherapist Brittany Bouffard said.
“These refusals to stay connected during or after a conflict are like a bomb, often leaving each partner without understanding of why the other is hurt or how to repair,” she said.
“Telling someone that their reaction is ‘too’ anything almost never helps.”
This tendency to withdraw is common among those who have an avoidant attachment style, Bouffard noted. (An attachment style is the way we relate to others in intimate relationships.) They feel uncomfortable with too much closeness in the relationship and may check out or look for ways to distance themselves.
Asking your partner for some time to think or cool off is OK, but ignoring your partner or refusing to have difficult conversations altogether is not.
“If you relate, try telling your partner you need a few minutes to tend to yourself but you are willing to come back and talk,” Bouffard said. “Perhaps you have a request, such as more space to share your voice without interruption or to keep the talk focused on a next step rather than the argumentative details.”