Words create our reality. And you have to be really careful – really careful with those words in your relationship or marriage.
“I can’t take much more of this.”
“I can’t believe I ever married you.”
“I’ve had it with you.”
These words may be said in jest, or in a heated moment. Or perhaps they’ve been uttered repeatedly in exasperation. Maybe they’re meant to hurt or grab emotional control or to jolt your partner into paying attention to you. Regardless, these are words that you can’t take back and sadly, they often have a cumulative effect. They can spark the realization that your relationship could end – might end – even will end.
If you do mean these words, it’s time to take action. Either consider therapy before things get even worse, or if you feel intentionally abused or manipulated, then consider taking careful steps to protect yourself and any children that might be involved.
If you don’t mean these sentiments and yet you still say (or hear) them a lot, you and your partner are creating emotional chaos. And living in chaos breeds the need to protect.
What happens when you feel threatened?
You might get strongly defensive, often mounting a counter attack. “Well just go on and get it over with.” Or if you don’t attack, you may avoid conflict and ‘pretend’ those statements never were said.
Neither reaction is good for your relationship.
When a couple comes in for a first session, the hour can be loaded with “he saids” and “she saids.” No one is taking responsibility for their part of the problem, secretly (or not so secretly) wanting me to fix the other. The room is filled with disdain, often leaving very little time for treatment. After an hour of bickering and blaming, I’m asked, “So what do we do until we see you again?“
Usually, my answer is: “Don’t do what you’ve been doing. Be kind. Right now, all you’re doing is reacting to each other. And that’s got to stop.”
Kindness is essential. Kindness is the building block of empathy and understanding. And it’s the antidote for contempt – which is a major predictor of divorce.
Let’s take Nan and John. They had two children under the age of 3, both had busy careers, and had had trust problems even before children. Nan felt as if she did the lion’s share of work around the home; John didn’t feel appreciated for what he did. (This is an extremely common theme in marital work.) Add two toddlers to that, and they were at each other’s throats, criticizing every diaper change. In fact, every choice was scrutinized to see how the other was living up to the role of “parent.”
It was awful.
Therapy was limping along, until I gave them an assignment.
They both agreed to only make a comment about the other’s choices, if they were first given permission to do so. For example, “Would you like my opinion on what you dressed Emma in today?” Or, “Can I offer a suggestion on how you might get Tyler to take a bath?”
I know it sounds a bit ludicrous. But what they were doing had to get stopped.
The next week, they came in laughing. There were a few times that permission had been given and a suggestion made. But most of the time, the editorial comment was flatly refused. They each looked at me and said, “You know, their way of doing things could be just as good. Or even if it wasn’t, it wasn’t a big deal. Emma still got dressed and Tyler either got a bath or he didn’t.“ But what was so life-changing is that the immense relief from not arguing was worth shutting up.
Four important steps in becoming more kind…
What else can you and/or your partner do if you’re in the habit of being critical?
1) Actively force yourself to stop focusing on the negative and instead, focus on the positive.
Keep foremost in your mind that your partner is probably trying to do their best, and not intentionally doing things to disappoint or irritate you. Remember what you love about the person, and stop taking every opportunity to point out where you find them lacking.
2) Recognize that “bad” doesn’t always have to become “worse.”
We human beings sometimes have to have things get really bad before we do something about them. For example, tornado shelters are often built after a bad tornado. Recognize that just because your relationship has fallen into a ditch, it doesn’t have to stay there; you can build a tornado shelter for your relationship.
3) Take responsibility for your part of the problem.
If your answer for things becoming happier is for the other person to change, then that’s a problem. The only thing you have control over is yourself. Take a risk and try tweaking your own behavior. Hopefully, your partner will respond and do the same.
4) Apologize for your transgressions and forgive your partner’s theirs.
If barbs have been slung around, it may take an apology and forgiveness on both sides. Nan and John could’ve “stayed mad” but instead they laughed and apologized.
Remember the power that your words have in affecting the health of your relationship.
And you have the power to create good health.
This was originally published on February 27, 2016; updated and republished on June 24, 2023.