The words we use shape our relationships in powerful ways.
This is especially the case in your marriage or intimate relationship. The words you use and how you speak to your spouse/partner will either make him/her feel closer to you, keep the status quo, or push him/her away.
Distressed couples are feeling negatively toward each other and they are sharing these feelings via an overuse of defensive, invalidating or harsh/critical language. Speaking in this way fans the flames of disconnection and further breakdowns in communication.
The goal is to avoid falling down the communication rabbit hole by being mindful of the words you use. Of course you shouldn’t deny your frustrations and anger with each other, but when these feelings repeatedly shape how you relate to one another, relationship problems are likely to fester.
Let’s turn our attention to three phrases couples frequently use that do more harm than good.
Couples Communication: 3 Problem Phrases to Avoid
1) “Just Calm Down”
Saying “calm down” (or “relax”) to your partner when s/he is upset isn’t a good idea (unless your ultimate goal is to further upset him/her). And often when we tell our partner this, our message has a condescending tone to it.
The spouse/partner on the receiving end of a “calm down” message usually believes their distress is justified (they probably wouldn’t be upset otherwise); therefore, their perception is that their feelings are being invalidated or dismissed when they’re told to calm down (or “take it easy” or “chill” or some such variation whose subtext is “I’ve determined that you’re too upset for the situation”).
If you find that you’re about to vocalize a “calm down” message to your spouse or partner, think about why you might say this:
- Are you angry and want to halt the conversation?
- Is your partner’s distress making you feel overwhelmed?
- Are you concerned for him/her in that moment?
- Is your goal to keep the conversation from spiraling further out of control?
- Remember, when we receive the message to “calm down” (no matter how well-intended the speaker might’ve been), all we really end up hearing is, “You’re being too much”; “You’re acting crazy”; “You’re excessive (irrational).”
It’s important to note that even if your intention is good and you want to further a meaningful dialogue, saying “calm down” typically doesn’t translate into, “I love you and I want to reconnect emotionally, but our intense feelings are getting in the way, so why don’t we take a few minutes to regroup and start again from a more emotionally-centered place?”
Feel free to say this latter message to your partner when you find yourselves in an emotionally-heated place. You’ll see that it’s greatly preferable to “calm down.”
2) “You should…” (“Why don’t you…?”; “Why didn’t you…?”)
When thinking about how to communicate with your spouse more effectively, it’s important to note that the way your message is sent can make all the difference between it being received by your partner or it being rejected by him/her.
A “You should have” (or a “Why didn’t you”) statement can feel like a reprimand or judgment to the receiver of this message.
If your spouse/partner asks for your advice, saying “Why don’t you…” would probably be welcome. But heavy-handed, unsolicited directives about what your partner “should” or “shouldn’t” do are likely to fuel defensiveness and withdrawal rather than the openness that is the ultimate goal of effective couples communication.
3) “You’re Being Defensive”
You’re not alone if you get defensive from time to time — it’s hard not to when we’re feeling rejected or repeatedly misunderstood by our spouse/partner. When these communication patterns persist, we close ourselves off, emotionally bobbing and weaving like a boxer in an effort to not get hurt any further.
Entering into a defensive mode often happens pretty quickly (almost automatically) when we feel attacked.
But it’s important to remember that defensiveness has a function that is often overlooked. When we’re defensive, we are trying to protect ourselves. We are covering our vulnerabilities and pushing back with a shield of anger.
To say to your partner, “You’re getting (or being) defensive” is an accusation — and the person on the receiving end of this statement is more likely to remain in his/her protective-defensive position.
Rather than reinforcing defensiveness by saying, “You’re getting/being defensive,” you might want to think of something else to say, finding words that will make your partner feel understood rather than judged.
Remember, no one can feel understood and defensive at the same time!
Our marriage/relationship is like a classroom that offers ongoing lessons for how to communicate with each other, finding the words that can help deepen emotional connection.
And like any lesson, there are things we can do more of and things that we should avoid if possible.
We come to our marriage/relationship with particular strengths and vulnerabilities. Knowledge of each other’s vulnerabilities gives us important information — information that can be used as a guide to shaping communication in ways that continually feed and strengthen the relationship.
✓ What would you and your partner add to the above list?
✓ What words and messages are likely to send you down the dark alley of defensiveness?
✓ What particular words/messages (and tone of voice) shut you down or make you want to pull away from your spouse/partner?
Here’s to making effective communication a daily part of your marriage!
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured image courtesy of Akarakingdoms at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)