Relationship arguments are bound to ensue even in the healthiest of partnerships, whether it’s playful bickering or super-intense verbal disputes. The difference between those two modes of disagreement comes down to whether you play dirty; do you simply point out your partner’s bad habits or hammer down on how much you hate their dumb, stupid face and their dumb, stupid parents and their dumb, stupid dog? Basically, when you say things that almost certainly should be left unsaid, you’re not fighting effectively, and unless you’re eager to break up, maybe you should think twice about your verbal game plan.
But I’m not a relationship expert by any stretch of the imagination, so I checked in with therapists who are the real deal about the forbidden phrases for relationship arguments with your sweetie. And the most important take away across the board? Think: vintage Justin Bieber.
1. “Never” or “Always”
Using absolute terms like “never” and “always” is widely considered to be the biggest no-no when it comes for arguing. Think about it: When has saying something like “Ugh, you never listen to me” or “You always prefer to hang out with other people” gotten you anywhere productive?
“It’s clear when you get to the point in your argument that you feel you have to say something out of desperation,” says Tammy Nelson, PhD, a certified sex and couple’s therapist. “You reach for that ‘never’ word because you are hurting and feeling abandoned, or because your needs are clearly not being met.” Another reason it doesn’t make for a great argument? Nobody always does something. “It is an exaggeration that comes from a place of frustration and is usually the result of not feeling heard,” Dr. Nelson adds.
When has saying something like “Ugh, you never listen to me” or “You always prefer to hang out with other people” gotten you anywhere productive?
When you wield “never” and “always,” the fight is already lost, and there will likely be no winners. If you are, for example, unhappy that your partner abandoned you for an hour at a mutual friend’s engagement party, don’t say they always abandon you for an hour at a mutual friend’s engagement party, because that’s oddly specific and likely untrue. “These are character assassinations that leave somebody feeling defenseless and unable to ever dig out against the criticism,” says Jane Greer, PhD, marriage and family therapist. “Keep your statements to ‘when you did this,‘ and be specific in your comments.”
2. “I want to break up” or “I want a divorce”
When psychologist and relationship expert Danielle Forshee, PsyD threw these phrases at me, I immediately flashed back to how my first breakup ended with a fiery “I’m done.” If only it really were done, because the situation dragged on for, oh, about a decade. The point is, you don’t want to pull out deal-breaker cards during an argument. As Dr. Forshee explains, people sometimes say things they don’t mean in the heat of the moment, and once the line is out there, it’s hard to reconvene.
Dr. Greer agrees, noting that threatening the relationship “evokes so much anxiety and uncertainty” and permanently obstructs whatever the current conflict at hand is.
3. “I hate you”
“While we all hate some of the things our partners do and say at some point in the relationship, giving your partner this hurtful depreciation belief that sums up your partner’s total essence just isn’t fair,” says NYC-based relationship therapist Laurel Steinberg, PhD. “No one wants to be hated by their partner, and this phrase can be the beginning of the end.”
“No one wants to be hated by their partner, and this phrase can be the beginning of the end.” —relationship therapist Laurel Steinberg, PhD
Instead, target the things your partner does that you hate, because, sure, they ain’t perfect. “Then offer specific suggestions for how you think your partner could better execute in those areas and how you’d feel if they did,” Dr. Steinberg says.
4. “You look terrible”
Dr. Forshee is big on the belief that you shouldn’t say anything that “criticizes your partner’s character.” Because, remember, friends, you can’t unsay things. At least some subconscious part of your partner will forever think your in-the-heat-of-the-moment insult reflects how you really feel.
If you’re genuinely skeeved out that your partner is growing a neck beard or that they look generally tired, like, all the time, redirect the conversation to something positive and supportive. “Say something like, ‘You’d feel better and healthier if you hit the gym and got back to eating healthy foods. Let’s plan to exercise and cook right together every week. It will be fun,'” Dr. Steinberg recommends.
And beyond not focusing on your partner’s physical features, steer clear of attacks on their personality, as well. “Avoid angry, blaming statements, like ‘you don’t know what you’re doing,’ ‘you’re being inconsiderate,’ ‘you’re so selfish,’ or ‘I can’t count on you’. Anything that is critical or judgmental will only add salt to the wound,” Dr. Greer says.
TL;DR? In relationship arguments, focus on how you feel, communicate issues about what your partner does versus who they are, and fight fairly. I think we can all agree on that.
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