8:18, 14.Aug 2018
It doesn’t matter how deeply in love you two are. Inevitably, you'll have moments in your relationship when your partner does something baffling, inconvenient, or downright irritating, leading to an argument.
“It’s okay to have disagreements—that’s actually very normal in a relationship,” says New York City–based clinical psychologist Alden Cass, PsyD, author of Bullish Thinking.
The problem arises when there’s a lack of respect in the language used during a fight. Nasty words said when tempers are flaring will leave both partners feeling emotionally raw or guilty, and this chips away at the love and care that form the bedrock of a healthy relationship. Avoid that outcome by watching your words—specifically these. They act like kindling and can turn a minor battle into a raging breakup fight.
“I'm mad at you for a whole bunch of reasons”
“You should never save up all of your anger about 10 different things that annoyed you about your spouse, and hit them with it in one big argument,” says Cass. Unspooling a laundry list of offences and complaints leads to a fight that’s more dramatic and toxic than it needs to be, he explains.
Think of it this way: You’re probably not a detective, so you don't need to build a case about your partner and establish a pattern of behaviour. That’s unhelpful and difficult for your partner to hear and take in. Either share your feelings in the moment when something frustrating occurs—or let it go.
“You always do this” and “You never do that”
When you make “always” or “never” statements, a battle of semantics often ensues. After all, does your partner really never do the dishes—or did she skip it for the past week because of a work deadline or a tough week? Using absolute words like these discounts everything good a person does in a relationship, says Dr. Cass. “That completely infuriates the other person and causes resentment,” he says.
Focusing on a single negative point (those dirty dishes) at the expense of everything else that’s positive (the folded laundry; the flowers on your birthday) is a cognitive error known as mental filtering, says Dr. Cass. Instead of making sweeping generalisations, focus on the one specific situation or action.
“You’re such a #$@&%”
Obscenities and insults are mean-spirited and cause pain—you were feeling hurt, so you said something cruel, and now your partner is feeling hurt, too. Trading insults is not a productive path when you're in a disagreement. “Emotion can cloud judgment and inflame the other person’s emotion, and those two wrongs don’t make a right,” says Dr. Cass.
“You want to avoid character assassinations in any argument,” says Dr. Cass. Insults are innately disrespectful. “If you keep respect as the holy grail of a relationship, as a top-of-mind priority, you don’t have as many negative repercussions when you argue,” he says. So skip the name-calling, and focus the conversation on the problem or behaviour—not your partner’s character.
"The number one no-no is to drop the d-word," says Dr. Cass, whether it's saying "I'm done" or "I want a divorce." Raising the possibility of a breakup if it's not what you actually desire or plan on following through with is toxic, he adds. These nuclear-level threats leave your partner feeling at risk, and they put the future of your relationship in peril.
Saying "I want to break up" lets your partner know you’re really upset, but not what you’re upset about. If your emotions—and not your actual desire for a breakup—are propelling these phrases, that's a sign you need to take a breather. Step away and simmer down.