‘I’m a Couples Therapist, and These Are 3 Things I’d Never Say to My Partner’

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As a couples therapist, Genesis Games, LMHC, spends her days talking to people in relationships, and observing how these people talk to each other—often about the toughest, most emotional topics. Having witnessed first-hand the many ways in which two people can build (or diminish) the connection between them with just words, Games knows a thing or two about what to say and not say in a relationship.

“My job is to help people in a relationship get reconnected with each other,” says Games, who primarily works with millennial couples navigating major life changes, such as moving to a new city or starting a new job. “A big part of that reconnection is learning to communicate vulnerably and have these very open and real conversations.” Certain hurtful comments can instantly shut down the potential for that vulnerability, so Games often finds herself advising clients on what not to say in their relationships, as much as she’s suggesting what to say.

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Below, she outlines the top three types of comments that’ll get you absolutely nowhere in a relationship—and that you’d be better off retiring for good.

What a couples therapist would never say to her partner, and what she’d say instead

1. “Calm down”

If you’ve been told to calm down only to feel that much less calm, you know how frustrating it is to hear that phrase. And yet, despite the fact that the uselessness of saying “calm down” is so well-known that it’s a meme, people are often still tempted to say it to a partner, says Games. “It can be an automatic response in someone who doesn’t know how to handle a partner’s emotions, or how to provide the support that they need at that moment.”

“Saying 'calm down' doesn’t allow the other person to expand on what’s wrong or to explain why the situation at hand is upsetting them so much.” —Genesis Games, LMHC, couples therapist

But no matter how positive the intention might be, saying “calm down” is not often well-received “because it can feel very dismissive of whatever’s going on and tends to shut down the conversation,” says Games. “It doesn’t allow the other person to expand on what’s wrong or to explain why the situation at hand is upsetting them so much.”

Instead, Games suggests asking questions when you’re faced with a very worked-up partner. “When in doubt, lean into curiosity,” she says. “Ask, ‘What’s going on? Why is this so important to you?’ Or, ‘What about this is making you upset? I’d like to better understand.’” That way, you’re creating space for them to express why they’re so not calm, and in turn, validating their emotional response, while also gaining insights that can help you figure out how to help.

If you do know why they’re so upset, but you just don’t know how you can help, it’s still important to resist the temptation to say, “calm down,” says Games. In this case, she suggests just being a calming, supportive presence without necessarily saying anything. “You don’t always have to offer wise words or have a perfect solution to a partner’s problem,” says Games. “Sometimes, you can simply hold their hand or hug them or sit by their side, which can let them know that you care and you’re there for them, regardless.”

2. “You’re acting like your mom” or “You’re acting like your dad”

Comparing a partner to one of their parents almost always does more harm than good, mostly because these declarations tend to come with a negative tinge in the heat of an argument: “You’re so bossy, just like your mom,” or “You’re being just as stubborn as your dad.”

“People don’t typically say, ‘You’re acting just like your mom,’ or ‘just like your dad’ as a compliment,” says Games. “It’s almost always a low-key insult that they know, deep down, is going to hurt the other person.” That’s because most people have inherited at least a couple qualities from one or both parents that they aren’t the most proud of—and it’s that stuff that’s typically the hardest to change. When you call out one of these traits in a partner, you’re drawing attention to the fact that they haven’t grown out of it, which can be hurtful or even triggering.

Instead, pause the conversation and take a beat to cool down, suggests Games. Once you’ve done so, return to the discussion with a solution or suggestion, rather than an empty and unhelpful accusation.

At that point, if you still feel the need to offer your partner some feedback related to how they’re acting like their mom or dad, plan to do so at a more neutral time (aka not in the middle of an argument). “In that scenario, you might say, ‘I’m not attempting to insult you or bring you down, but I want to bring something to your attention that I think is important,’” says Games. If they seem receptive, you can then gently make the comparison.

3. Anything contemptuous

Whenever you’re using language that openly disrespects, disregards, or shows disdain for someone, you’re in the dangerous territory of contempt. “I describe contempt as anything that feels like you’re bullying the other person,” says Games. “And that’s what you definitely do not want to say in a relationship.”

To get more specific, contempt typically goes beyond just raising your voice or making a snarky comment, adds Games. “It’s basically letting the other person know that they’re lesser than you and you’re superior, or that they should just feel so lucky that they have you around.” And that’s a surefire way to breed resentment and weaken the foundation of your relationship, she says. In fact, according to relationship research organization The Gottman Institute, hurling contempt-ridden insults during arguments is the number-one predictor of divorce in married couples.

Instead, if you feel like you’re on the verge of using contempt, Games suggests taking a breather from the conversation and only returning once you’ve fully cooled off. To ensure that you don't even get to that point in future arguments, work to build a culture of appreciation in your relationship, she says. “Consider how you might show more gratitude for your partner on a day-to-day basis, or challenge yourself to catch your partner doing good things and verbally applaud them for it—as in, ‘Wow, I really like how you handled that conversation with the neighbor,’ or ‘Thank you for grabbing the mail; I really appreciate it.’”

You can even call out smaller good deeds or actions than these, but it's the simple acknowledgement that helps to create a positive undertone for your relationship, says Games. That way, the next time you are in an argument with your partner, you’re less likely to resort to contempt by default and say something you don’t really mean—but can't easily take back.

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