Words are powerful. They can fortify, strengthen, and encourage, or they can break down, harm and destroy. Sometimes words are wielded as weapons. Other times they convey love and kindness.
One of my jobs as a couples therapist is to notice the words spoken in session and to find better, healthier ways of speaking. Fights, disagreements, and arguments happen. So as you feel your anger or frustration level rising, pay close attention to the wording that you use.
Here are 17 toxic phrases that kill relationships.
- You’re overreacting: According to whom? What one person’s definition of a ‘normal’ reaction can be very different than another person’s. Each individual is allowed to experience and react to things in their own way, on their own terms. If you find someone’s reaction to be problematic, be specific about your concerns. For example, “Bob, when I ask you a question and you raise your voice at me, I feel intimidated and afraid.” is much more useful than, “Bob, stop overreacting when I ask you a simple question!”
- You are fat/ugly/undesirable/pathetic: Put-downs are never okay. Phrases like this not only make a person feel awful in the short term, but they can linger on for years, decades even. Don’t say them.
- You always: I can almost guarantee that the use of ‘always’ in an argument or disagreement isn’t true. And it sets the speaker up for a rebuttal. “Oh, I always leave the pantry door open? It’s closed now, isn’t it?”
- You never: See the above, “you always.”
- I hate you: You don’t have to say everything you feel, and this phrase is definitely one to avoid. Hate liver and onions. Hate traffic. Hate the neighbor’s barking dog. Don’t hate a person.
- If you ever ______ it’s over: Ultimatums rarely work or do any good, so unless you’re 110% willing to live up to your word, don’t say it. Threats often come up when someone feels very strongly about something but doesn’t know another way to describe their angst. Saying something like “when you talk disrespectfully to me I sometimes I just want to leave,” points out the problem and your feelings about it.
- No one will love you like me: This phrase is usually spoken by an abusive partner and is a huge red flag that there are serious problems going on. It is all about controlling another person to get what you want.
- I’ll kill myself if you leave: These words are a manipulative threat. Do you really desire your partner to stay simply because they’re afraid you will hurt or kill yourself? If they are said in all seriousness, then that person needs to get to a hospital.
- The kids hate you: Leave the kids out of your adult fights. If you’re really worried about your child’s relationship with their other parent, talk about it during a different time, in a caring manner. Don’t use them as ammunition against your partner.
- I’ve done nothing wrong here. Fights and arguments take more than one person, and disagreements should not turn into a blame game. Your partner could probably come up with some things they feel you’ve done wrong, and if you use this phrase, you’ll be sure to hear about them. Take a second to consider your responsibility in the matter.
- I only hit/yell/leave you because you… Your actions are your responsibility. No one can make you hit or yell or leave. Take ownership of your actions. Don’t blame them on someone else.
- Why can’t you just be like ….: Stay away from comparing your partner to others. He or she can’t be like someone else because they aren’t. This phrase is basically a putdown in disguise.
- ….. have a perfect relationship? Why can’t we? First off, no one has a perfect relationship. Chances are, the great relationship you’re referring to has as many skeletons in the closet as your own.
- I told you so: Maybe you did, but does it need to be said right now, at this moment? Is saying it going to help anything? If not, keep it to yourself.
- I’m sorry BUT: Apologies need to stand on their own. “But” pretty much negates the “sorry.”
- Calm down: I have never heard someone say, “calm down!” and see the other person calm down. The opposite is true. “Calm down!” is usually met with, “I AM CALM!” or “NO!” Not “gosh, you know, you’re right. My emotions are getting the better of me. Thanks for reminding me of this!”
- Whatever: This one stinks of childishness and immaturity. It’s disrespectful and cuts off a conversation before it can be finished. If you need a break from talking, simply say that instead.
One of the benefits of in-person couples counseling is the ability for the therapist to catch, interpret, and revise the words that people say to each other in the room. Learning how to talk to one another, even learning how to fight or argue, are lessons that can be used not only at home with your partner, but with coworkers, friends, and extended family.
Choosing the right phrasing increases understanding, promotes discussion, and can actually strengthen relationships. It leads to problem-solving rather than blaming. There may be times when you feel the need to lash out or yell. If you find yourself slipping into anger and feel like you can’t control what you say, take a break. It’s far better to take a 20-minute walk than to say something to your partner that causes deep pain.