When you talk to someone all the time, you’re bound to say the wrong thing. Some comments will be stupid, others mean. But often these are heat-of-the-moment misfirings and an apology usually brings forgiveness.
But then there are the words that you can’t walk back. They’re cruel, spiteful, and happen for any number of reasons. They may spill out of your mouth because you don’t feel supported, you’re exhausted, you’re stressed, or you’re unhappy at work.
Whatever it is that’s gnawing at you, such little annoyances can make you feel under attack, and that presents three choices: fight, flight, or freeze. When you choose the first option you’re much more likely to say things to your partner that you shouldn’t.
“It’s a way to protect ourselves,” says Michelle Joy, marriage and family therapist in Half Moon Bay, California. “In fight mode, we don’t want to talk anymore.”
Learning how to reign in stress and better articulate what you’re feeling are essential ways of avoiding these moments. So is learning about your conflict style. What’s also helpful is remembering what phrases should be avoided at all costs because, let’s face it, sometimes we don’t even know how bad they are.
We asked a few therapists to provide a handful of the worst things a husband can say to his partner. Here are six examples, along with some advice for steering clear of such conflict at all costs.
1. “I didn’t say that.”
You say something awful. Your partner repeats it back in the moment or the next day, and you respond with this, or the close cousin, “That’s not what I meant.” This might not sound like a big deal but it’s Gas Lighting 101 and a complete power play. “You have to be right and the other person has to be wrong,” says Pam Monday, marriage and family therapist in Austin, Texas. A big no-no.
2. “I want a divorce”/ “Well, I just might leave.”
Even if you don’t say the word “divorce” – but especially if you do – this is the ultimate threat. Your partner hears the words and the message they receive is that they’re not good enough and disposable. And if this comes without warning, it shakes the foundation of what you’ve built and believed was solid. “It changes what you thought was true,” Joy says.
3. “I can get my needs met somewhere else.”
This is a severely wounding phrase, as you’re saying that your partner isn’t measuring up. What particularly hurts, Joy says, is that your partner might work hard and be supportive and caring in all their efforts, and this comment says, “No, not really.”
4. “Why would you think she could do X?”
Or a similarly cutting comment said to relatives or friends. It sounds cute, even funny, but it’s a putdown about someone’s looks or competency. It’s usually said regularly, so it’s a verbal pounding in a death-by-1,000-paper-cuts-kind-of-way. Over time, self-esteem drops and your spouse starts doubting their ability to make good decisions. “You’re sending the message that, ‘You’re less than,’” Monday says.
5. “Why would you do it that way?”
This could be about leaving a door open or cutting vegetables. Said once, it’s benign. The problem is when it’s in a mocking tone and said repeatedly. You don’t even have to say the words, “You’re stupid,” to have your spouse feel that, Joy says.
6. “Why can’t you be more like …?”
When fighting, comparisons are never favorable. You’re highlighting their flaws, which can also be done with, “You’re just like …” Often, the fill-in is a parent and your comment hits a deeply sore spot. “Usually people try to outgrow their past,” says Joy, adding that your dig makes them resigned to, “I’m carrying that trait forward.”
How to Avoid Saying Things You’ll Regret
The first step is to walk away to, as Monday says, “put water on the fire, not fuel.” But it’s not merely leaving. You and your partner need to establish a word or gesture that signals both “timeout” and “I’m coming back so we can calmly talk.”
In between, you have to go from 80 to zero. Joy recommends giving yourself three minutes to vent, and when time is up – time it if you must – you stop ruminating. One trick is to clap your hands and say “Let’s go.” “It calls to mind the bigger picture of the relationship,” she says. “It’s a coaching of yourself.”
Monday suggests having a list of 10 relaxing options like going outside, music, exercise, the always-effective deep breathing in which you elongate the exhale. Whatever you do, you want to get out of your head.
“The more isolated you are, the more the world feels unfair,” she says.
When you return to the argument – and you have to be the one who returns if you call for the pause – you each get one sentence at a time. Anything more is overwhelming. You’ll speed up when you want to slow down, and, per Monday, you’ll be spewing lava.
Then use your energy to listen and validate your partner. You don’t have to agree. Your job is to merely understand. And you still get to say things like, “When you talk a long time, I do check out.” It’s honest, but because you’re not blaming or yelling, the words can get through.
“If you don’t feel heard and understood,” she says, “forget problem-solving.”
How to Stay Cool in the First Place
Big comments about divorce are signs of contempt and that’s something therapy might help. But the smaller shots reflect resentment, and underneath that, disconnection, which is understandable because as parents your attention is on everything but the two of you.
But the result is that the relationship feels like work. Finding ways to be together, which fit into your schedules, will counteract that. Suggestions sound simplistic: play a board game, share a glass of wine, watch television while holding hands. But they’re regular, weekly times when you can connect and be non-parents.
Another easy way to lower the temperature is to greet each other with hello and goodbye. It’s a no-cost, minimal-effort way to acknowledge that you’re not just “two people living in the same space,” Joy says. After that, hug and hold it for 20 seconds, because you’re probably not doing that and the longer duration inevitability produces a thaw. And, as she adds, “Sometimes that’s all you need.”
Whatever you decide, the important thing is that you emphasize healthy communication, take measures to control your stress, and carve out regular moments to connect. The more you do, the less you’ll lash out.