In order to have a productive, fulfilling, long-term relationship, there are many things we need to be aware of. Our own triggers and emotional baggage, our partner’s needs and love language, and how we speak to one another, especially when conflict arises. Our partner’s words may ring in our ears and weigh on our hearts for months or longer. They can cause us to feel resigned or empowered, encouraged or deflated.
For a relationship to have the best chance of success over the long haul, avoid these phrases that pique defensiveness — and consider the alternatives to help you come away from disagreements with more empathy and understanding.
“I’m sorry you feel that way”
Relationships 101: An apology that “apologizes” for the way someone feels is not an apology. Should we be mindful and empathetic of how our partner feels? Absolutely. But if they are feeling upset as a result of something we did, the first order of business is to take ownership for our part.
In any relationship, personal or professional, taking responsibility for our behaviour will go farther — faster — to repair damage than deflecting focus to the other person. In general, “I” statements are more productive than “you” statements when resolving conflict, as “I” indicates ownership while “you” typically signifies blame. Try, “I’m sorry I ___ and that made you feel ___.”
If there’s a more dismissive response than “whatever,” I’m not sure what it is. The poor man’s “I don’t care,” whatever instantly minimizes and shuts down what your partner is saying. Not only do these words make the speaker sound like a surly teenager, they make the person on the receiving end feel dismissed and invalidated. If you’re genuinely too angry in the moment to take on board what your partner is saying, postpone the discussion until after you’ve had a chance to cool down. For example, “I’m having trouble talking about this right now. Can we pause and come back to this later?”
“Relax” or “calm down”
Like gasoline on a fire, telling someone who is upset to relax or calm down is a surefire way to escalate their negative emotions. Far from conveying authentic curiosity or any attempt to rectify how your partner is feeling, “relax” and “calm down” indicate a desire to control and stop the emotions that are making us feel triggered or uncomfortable.
When it comes to interacting with someone feeling strong emotions, difficult as it may be, the best approach is to remain calm yourself. (Interestingly, this is what parenting experts recommended when dealing with an upset child. If you’re a parent, it’s time to recall those toddler meltdown techniques and respectfully adapt them here.) Instead of implying your partner is overreacting — another way to invalidate their experience — try, “I see you’re really upset. Can you help me understand why?” Or “I want to help but it’s hard for me to hear you right now. Can we take a breath first then continue?”
“Always” and “never”
The words “always” and “never” are subjective and, when it comes to relationships, not likely to be true. They imply absolutes; that there is no time when a certain behaviour is — or is not — happening. As noted by licensed clinical counselor Julienne Derichs, “Always and never statements are most often used in an accusatory and argumentative way, which leads to a defensive reaction in order to clarify the exaggeration or untruth.”
Rather breaking down the conversation by inciting defensiveness, try phrases that start with, “I notice that…” or “It feels like…” Another approach is to link how you’re feeling to the behaviour you want to see improve, e.g., “I feel (alone in the household responsibilities) when you (don’t take out the trash).” After all, would you rather hear, “It hurts my feelings when you don’t ask about my day” or “You never ask about my day”?
When we’re angry or upset, it’s obvious, especially to the person we live with, who (presumably) knows us best. Trying to deny something is wrong will only serve to kick the problem down the road, and potentially anger our partners, who now have to “dig” to find out what’s bothering us — or risk being accused of not caring. As marriage and family therapist Dr. Andrea Brandt writes for Psychology Today, “Nothing really means, ‘Of course I’m upset, but I’m afraid of bringing up anything that may start a fight, so I’m going to provoke you into starting one for me.’” Brandt continues, “The next time your partner says, ‘Nothing,’ counter with, ‘That response is only going to get us into a fight. When you’re ready to talk about it, I’m here to listen.’”
Name-calling should be avoided at all costs in a relationship. Even when apologised for, it’s unlikely your partner will soon (possibly ever) forget the nasty thing you called them during an argument. They may forever wonder if deep down, that’s how you really see them and begin to lose trust in you and your affection. If you’re feeling angry enough to hurl a name at your partner, remove yourself from the conversation until you’ve calmed down enough to speak productively, or risk causing irreparable long-term damage.
“Why don’t you ever…”
Questions beginning with this verbiage are going downhill fast. Like “always” and “never,” this phrase implies a consistent infraction that your partner will likely receive as a criticism. Instead of, “Why don’t you ever offer to plan our dates?” try either 1) praising the behaviour you want to see more of or 2) making a direct request. “It’s such a relief when you pick a restaurant and make a reservation, I love it!” or “I really appreciate when you take the initiative to plan a night out for us. Could we make this a regular thing?”