By Lawrence Kaufman, Florida Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) 561-302-0568
Based on the many years of experience I have had working professionally with couples, I have listed below some of the least helpful things to say (or not say) or do when discussing serious relational issues with your partner. These “dirty dozen,” dysfunctional (psychologically damaging, ineffective, or counterproductive) strategies or approaches, often serve as triggers to set the other off reactively or defensively. (Note: I am using the word “react” here to refer to an automatic “knee jerk” [unthinking] reaction, as opposed to “respond” – a thoughtful, moderate, not overly emotional or dysfunctional response.)
Following some of the points below, I have included explanations as to why I think these specific types of communications are best avoided, and I suggest some alternatives you may have to saying or using them.
Conversations with your partner are more likely to deteriorate and become derailed (thrown off course) when you:
- Say “That’s not true!”
This makes it sound like you, unlike your partner, know the real facts — the way things really are. Receivers of these words tend to feel put off in response. Just because you believe something to be true, doesn’t make it true. Perspectives (or subjective [personal, unique points of view]) reactions are not facts. What is true for one person may not be true for another. It is more constructive to think in terms of, and express, your own opinions, perspectives, and points of view.
- Ask questions (especially those starting with “why”) instead of making statements.
When people are asked questions, they not infrequently feel attacked or threatened, and then respond in a defensive way. Almost as a reflex, many people tend to feel put on the spot, or trapped, when asked questions. They may wonder what your (bad) motives or motivations are for asking the questions. Example: Instead of asking: “Why didn’t you tell me that sooner?”, you might consider saying something like: “I’m disappointed and puzzled by your not telling me that sooner.”
- Express yourself in exaggerated ways.
Examples: Saying “You never have anything nice to say to me.” “You always raise your voice when talking to me.” “You let me down all the time.” These kinds of statements can be felt by the recipient to be attacking, harshly critical, untrue, provocative, etc. To increase the likelihood that your listener will be receptive, open, and non-defensive to what you express, you might, for example, phrase your comments as follows: “I feel disappointed and put off that you didn’t stop at the grocery store as you had agreed.” “I feel criticized and hurt by the way you are talking to me.” By communicating in these more constructive ways, you are both asserting yourself and avoiding provoking an unnecessary and distracting counter-response (a tit-for-tat, I’ll get back at you, or retaliating response).
- Use sarcasm and express contempt.
(Note: I am defining “contempt” here as the attitude of having no respect, concern, or valuing of someone. “Sarcasm” here is defined as the use of stinging, cutting, or hurtful remarks, made with the intention of wounding another’s sensitive feelings.) These kinds of messages need to be eliminated from your communication repertoire. These are put-downs and expressions of disrespect. They are attacks on the partner’s self-esteem and self-worth. They can wound the other deeply and cause lasting damage in your relationship. Examples: “That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard!” “Thanks a lot!” (said when the speaker is actually feeling quite critical of you).
- Don’t respond to what your partner is saying or asking.
Sometimes listeners change the subject, stonewall (frustratingly refuse to comply or cooperate), shift the focus from themselves back on to the other, evade directly answering the other’s question, or pass over what the other has just said, as if they never heard it in the first place. Another habit or “strategy” some listeners have is to suddenly tell the other they have something very important to take care of at that moment (and perhaps adding that they will talk about it later — but have no intention of ever doing so). Even more dramatic, some partners angrily say something like “This conversation is over!”, or they “just” walk out of the room. And subsequently, don’t apologize for their behavior.
- Interrupt your partner in the middle of his/her sentence or thought.
This is also known as “talking over” what the other is saying, or talking at the same time as the other person. When people do this, they tend to talk louder and faster — as if to overpower the other. They strongly want to be heard and are forceful about it — sometimes being aggressive. This is sometimes done consciously, but is often done out of conscious awareness.
Put another way, when the interrupting person does this he or she is functioning on “auto-pilot.” This (as with many other forms of communication) has probably been learned in early childhood, in the family one grew up in (one’s “family of origin,” as it is technically called). Communication styles are passed down from one generation to the next, usually without conscious awareness or reflection about this process. This is a dysfunctional (or not constructive) form of communication.
Communicating in this manner can lead to confusion, resentment, frustration, and power struggles. In general, timing is a key consideration in deciding when to say something, or not, in a conversation. It is empathic (sensitive, tuned in) to be able to hear the other out, “wait your turn,” and respect the psychological space of the other. These are important skills that can be learned with patience and practice.
- Use commands or orders (telling people what to do) when talking to your partner.
This is a style of communicating that people often use with young children and pets — especially with dogs. Examples of this style of communication include the following: “Tell me what you are really feeling!” “Make sure you are on time!” “Don’t raise your voice!” “Listen to what I am saying!” “Make sure you take out the garbage!” The recipients of such commands or orders often feel resentful, controlled, put down, put in their place, etc. They may comply with your “order” initially, but later may “passive-aggressively” get back at, or retaliate against you at a later time.
- Express your negative feelings indirectly instead of directly.
That is, instead of expressing your feelings directly in words, you express them indirectly — as in your tone of voice, facial expressions, hand gestures, etc. (Note: Researchers have found that 90% of all communication is non-verbal – not directly communicated in words.) For example, instead of saying “I feel annoyed and frustrated with you,” you might instead say with an irritated and louder tone in your voice, “You didn’t answer my question!” This kind of statement often stimulates and initiates a negative interaction cycle (where one negative and critical comment stimulates a similar response from the other).
- Monologue, dominate, and “broadcast,” — speaking considerably more than 50% of the time.
These are ways in which to sabotage the possibility of having an effective and productive interchange. People resent engaging in one-way conversations, or being lectured or dominated in discussions. You will generally achieve better results if you keep your turns of talking short and to the point, and if you don’t talk any more than your partner does. I suggest you keep the “equal time rule” in mind whenever engaging in a serious conversation with your partner.
- Express yourself in judgmental, non-constructively critical ways.
It is destructive to blame, shame, attack, accuse, belittle, ridicule, and put down your partner. As well, it is harmful to speak in condescending, contemptuous, and patronizing ways. Also, don’t ever call one another names, such as “bitch” or “bastard.” Avoid saying such provocative things as: “You shouldn’t do that.” “That wasn’t a nice thing to say.” “You sound just as controlling as your mother (father, boss, son, daughter, etc.)” “You look like a slut in that dress.” “All you care about is money!”
- Think and express yourself in “either/or,” “black or white”, or “this or that” ways.
(Technically, this is called dichotomous or polarized thinking.) For instance, some couples hit a wall and get stuck in their conversations when they can’t get beyond feeling convinced that one of them is right, and the other is wrong. They are unable to imagine, or conceive of the possibility that there could be a third (or fourth, etc.) perspective, point of view, or way of seeing a problem between them. They are excessively certain about their view of things. For them, compromise, flexibility, or creative problem solving is just not an option or possibility. So, they may be doomed to repeat endlessly the same arguments — stuck in a “go nowhere” power struggle –never finding a resolution to their perpetual and seemingly unsolvable conflicts.. Both partners suffer as a result – and suffer repeatedly.
- Are overly pessimistic, overly optimistic, or alternate between these two extremes.
Here it is important to remind yourself to be realistic in your expectations of both the other and yourself. Change in significant relationships usually occurs slowly and gradually (although at times it occurs in dramatic leaps forward). Avoid the common myths that tell you such things as: “You can’t change anyone, just yourself.” and “Love can conquer all problems in a romantic relationship.” In my way of thinking, if it weren’t possible to influence anyone (for the better) then all counseling and psychotherapy would be ineffective and a waste of time, energy, and money (which I clearly disagree with). On the other hand, if you have excessive and unrealistic expectations of changing or transforming your partner, or yourself, you are going to be setting yourself up for a big disappointment and let down. It is much better and healthier to have realistic expectations.