You could be putting your significant other on the defensive without even realizing it. (Photo: Warren Goldswain/Stocksy)
“You’re just like your mother.”
There it is, those damning words, hanging in the air while you instantly wish you could take them back. Many couples have said something that they regret — or worse, they say things without even realizing the damage they’re doing to their relationship.
While it’s impossible to never say a negative thing to another person, even a beloved — we are humans, after all — there is evidence to suggest that the happiest couples are the ones who “have the highest ratio of positive statements to negative statements in the way they talk to each other,” Art Markman, PhD, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, tells Yahoo Health. While the exact ratio is up for debate, it’s clear that “the negative things we say to our partner stick more than the positive ones.”
Experts say there are certain comments that are particularly poisonous to a partnership, eroding a bond over time. Beware of these seven relationship-sabotaging phrases:
In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to make a sweeping statements such as, “You never think about what I want” or “You always leave your clothes on the floor.” There are two reasons why overarching accusations are so toxic: First, they’re judgmental, and really, no one likes to be judged. Second, across-the-board generalizations like these are not only often inaccurate — all your partner has to do is find one example to make your statement untrue —but they also automatically put your partner on the defensive, relationship expert Wendy Walsh, PhD, author of The 30-Day Love Detox, tells Yahoo Health.
And ultimately, this derails the discussion rather than getting at the heart of the problem. “If you say, ‘You always do this,’ then the argument becomes ‘No, I don’t always do this’ instead of what the argument is really about,” says Walsh. “There’s no choice but to defend yourself.”
For example, if your partner parks the car too close to your spot and doesn’t leave any room for you to squeeze into your car, you may be tempted to say, “You always park in my space! You never think about me.” But rather than attacking your partner and getting into a fight, Walsh suggests focusing on the problem at hand and soliciting your partner’s help in coming up with a solution. “You can say, ‘Hey love, I’m cramped and can’t get into my car—can you help me fix it?’” she suggests. “This is the problem and you need some help.”
This offhand remark can easily roll off the tongue when you’re annoyed at your partner and don’t want to listen to them, but the indifference it shows is chillier than any ice bucket challenge. “It’s dismissive,” says Walsh, who points out that stonewalling like this is what marriage researcher John Gottman, PhD, who has studied partnerships for 40 years, says is one of the top predictors of divorce. “If their partner is not listening to them, sooner or later they will find someone who will listen to them — and it will be a divorce attorney or a lover,” says Walsh. (Ouch.)
This remark can also make your partner feel disrespected, says relationship and marriage therapist Karen Ruskin, PsyD, LMFT, clinical fellow with the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and author of Dr. Karen’s Marriage Manual. Saying “whatever” to your S.O. sends the message that “I don’t care about your thoughts or your opinions,” Ruskin tells Yahoo Health. “It’s a lack of respect for the person’s voice, thoughts, and opinions.”
If your mother is painfully passive-aggressive or your father shirked his parenting duties, having your partner tell you that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree is a low blow. This type of objectifying comment is a form of name-calling, notes Walsh, so it isn’t constructive and only serves to wound someone. “It doesn’t allow the person to be seen or fully heard as a multifaceted human being,” she says. “It’s very difficult to get back to a place of love when someone has been objectified and you’ve called them a name. It’s the worst conflict resolution style.”
Dodging responsibility by constantly blaming someone or something else outside of the relationship and playing the victim is extremely damaging, according to Walsh. “The partner is forced into a place of compassion for the victim and conflict is not resolved,” she explains. “When you have a relationship, you’re going to be constantly compromising. Along the way there will be some treading on each other’s boundaries a bit, and sometimes it will be both partners’ fault. The ability to say ‘I’m sorry’ is huge.”
It also sends the message to your partner that you’re not willing to take ownership of your mistakes, Ruskin says, and it also makes “the mate feel stuck that there is no solution or resolution.”
"If you’re saying that it wasn’t [your fault], then basically, we’re stuck with ‘This can happen again,’" she says. "It gives you no hope or optimism for other scenarios" where you might be at fault.
This is an apology that’s not really an apology, says Markman. “If your partner has a complaint, acknowledge that the complain is something that made your partner feel bad. When you apologize and then immediately justify your action, you are not really apologizing,” he says. “You are explaining why the thing you did was not really wrong.” Instead, try to see the situation from your partner’s perspective: Think about how and why your actions may have been taken negatively, regardless of what you think about the purity of your intentions, he says.
By saying “calm down” (or using the phrase’s equally annoying cousin “relax”), you’re more likely to rile up your partner than soothe ‘em. “It’s condescending,” says Walsh. “When someone is upset, they aren’t going to calm down because they’ve been instructed to do so.” Instead, Walsh recommends coming from a place of sympathy, saying something like, “I can see that this is really upsetting you, and I want to find a way to help.” After all, the point of being in a partnership is that you’re in it together.
Phrases like “this is why you don’t lose weight” or “this is why you’re so stressed” can actually be expressions of contempt, and are toxic to a relationship, David Sbarra, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and director of clinical training at the University of Arizona, explains to Yahoo Health. “Making your partner feel low or inferior to you is the most noxious of relationship behaviors,” he says.
These kinds of remarks also imply that you know all — even if you really don’t. “You’re inferring you know the reason, but maybe that’s not the reason,” Ruskin says. In reality, saying “This is why…” just makes your partner feel like you don’t understand him or her.