Ashley Papa, a writer for Zoosk, recently gathered expert opinions to create 16 Things to Never Say in an Argument. I enjoyed contributing to the piece, and you can read my full commentary about the topic below.
Before we look at those 'trigger' phrases, let's review why we say these things in the first place, even though we often very quickly regret doing so! Our brains are primed to go to "war" before going to "love," and, evolutionarily, that makes a lot of sense. If a caveman gave you a hostile look, your chances of survival would be much higher if you were to attack him rather than to woo him. Subconsciously threatening looks, tones, or words similarly send our brains to war even with the ones we love most, making it easy to spit out hateful, combative language in the name of self-protection.
Couples often come to me with stories of arguments filled with detrimental communication patterns. Here are a few messages, both verbal and nonverbal, that can be damaging to a relationship. Reflecting on your own patterns and identifying the urge to resort to “war” language are key to avoiding these adverse behaviors. Once you have identified and prevented these miscommunications, you can instead choose more positive, accurate messages to share with your partner in even the most heated of moments.
1. “Maybe we should just break up"
...or “this isn’t working out,” "this is why I don’t want to be with you,” or any implicit or explicit threat to the relationship. The key to arguing well is trying to stay calm and in control. Threats to the relationship are like a gunshot to the nervous system. They certainly do not help the argument progress or come to an end. If you truly want to end the relationship, the heat of the moment is not the time to discuss it. Secure relationships are exemplified by the spirit of “we will get through this together,” and great couples communicate this even in tension.
2. "You always" / "You never"
These sort of blanket statements are a hallmark example of criticism, one of John Gottman’s four main predictors of divorce. Instead of criticism, if you’d like to bring up an issue with a partner, use specific examples. Something like “Hey honey, last night you forgot to do the dishes when you said you would. Do you think you’ll be able to do them soon?” is a better approach than “You always forget. I can never count on you for anything."
Whether it’s profanities or demeaning descriptors such as “lazy,” just… don’t. Your significant other is your partner in the most important team in your life. Name-calling is divisive and won’t help you out. No one responds to name-calling with "Well, now that you've pointed it out, I totally see your perspective!"
Put simply: it won’t help you and it won’t help the relationship.
4. Leaving without saying anything
If you realize you are too overwhelmed to continue an argument, communicate those feelings to your partner and set a time limit on when you can come back together. Saying something like “I want to resolve this, but I need a break. Let's take 10 minutes and then continue to talk about this.” is sufficient. Communicating the need for pause will go over a lot better than simply leaving the room or house, which triggers fears of abandonment. I once had a client leave the home without saying anything, and the other chased after her wearing nothing but a towel. As humans we would rather act completely outside of our own definition of normal rather than feel abandoned.
5. "This is exactly what you did 10 years ago"
This isn’t to say that you should never discuss relationship injuries from the past, but typically a more productive route is to describe how the injury is impacting you now. A common trigger from the past that I’ve found comes up often between couples is the feeling of being betrayed, or of being alone (to tackle kids, chores, responsibilities, etc) over a long period of time. If your partner is behaving in a way that reminds you of one of those times, the negative feeling (e.g.: aloneness, suspicion) is likely to feel even more painful than it normally would.
The best way to address this is to simply name your feeling and explain the way it is impacting you now: “Babe, I feel like I’m alone right now in cleaning up the house before your parents come over,” or “I don’t mean to pry, but it makes me feel more relaxed when you tell me who you were talking to.” If you've done repair work on the initial injury, your partner should know that your feeling is a trigger for you without you naming it, and fix the behavior. Specifically bringing up the past in these situations may make your partner feel like they are serving a lifetime sentence, or evoke guilt and shame which could also add to their defensiveness.
Like what you read? Follow me on Facebook for up-to-date blog posts and other articles on relationships and well-being.
Amy Bishop is a Marriage and Family Therapist candidate located in the heart of downtown Colorado Springs, CO. She enjoys working with couples of all stages in their relationship as well as individuals.