Communication — 29 October 2003
Messages to avoid in healthy relationships

Most people know that criticism, name calling, sarcastic comments, and
verbal discounts negatively impact relationships. However, some
seemingly neutral words can cause great harm as well.

Take a little word like “but” and analyze its potential damage in
couples communication. “I know you are upset, but it wasn’t my fault”.
The speaker began with an empathic statement that may have gained him the attention of his partner, “Oh, he understands my frustration”. Once the “but” came in, it cancelled the first part of the sentence and moved
the emphasis to the speaker’s defensive need. Now the listener was abandoned and the conversation is likely to evolve around whether or not it was the fault of the speaker.

“I love you, but I am annoyed by your attitude.” Here again the early
reassurance of love is lost after the “but”. “But” is a word intended to
divide a sentence into two parts, the latter of which is highlighted and
the former of which gets refuted. It is a useful word in many contexts,
but not in emotional exchanges.

It is imperative that partners use the word “and” instead of “but”, so
that both parts of the sentence are equally heard. “I love you and I am
annoyed by your attitude,” is more likely to be taken as a loving and
helpful comment. In relationship talk, “but” should be considered a
three letter word – and avoided.

There are also phrases that are harmful to maintaining goodwill in
conversations between mates: statements that create doubt about
commitment, those that are rejecting and isolating, and those that
create deep hurt and insecurity.

A challenge to the marital commitment can occur when one partner says: ”
I don’t know how long I’ll be able to tolerate this.” Or, “I can’t take
this any longer”, or, “nothing seems to ever change”, or “I am at the
end of my rope,” or, “I am totally fed up”.

These comments are often said not in reference to the relationship, but
about the partner’s untidiness, talkativeness, tardiness, or any other
frustrating behavior. Though a direct threat to the marriage is not
voiced, a covert threat may be heard. The speaker may not be aware of
the seriousness of the veiled challenge to their connection, but may
cause the mate to feel uncertain about his commitment to the marriage.

A rejecting and isolating verbal habit is mumbling under one’s breath.
Some people who are not comfortable with dealing with problems directly
may speak softly to themselves, muttering words of discontent. When
asked what they said, they may respond with “it doesn’t matter”, or
“nothing”, or “who cares about what I have to say”. This person is
isolating himself and contributes to being unheard. It is a way of
creating a distance between him and his loved ones and it reinforces his
sense of being unimportant to his family. Mumbling isolates the partner,
leaves the problem unsolved, and may be a pattern of ongoing passive

A partner may feel isolated by being told: “it is not your business” or
“I handled it the way I saw fit”. This may imply that the partner’s
input is unnecessary. Everything that occurs within the family is both
partners business, even if one of then ends up handling it alone. “I
decided that the children could not do this” may be an isolating
message, unless the matter is minor or had been previously agreed upon
by both partners.

Other comments that may produce discomfort, hurt and insecurity for
partners, come as pronouncements. “I am the only one in this house who
cares about cleanliness, if it were up to anyone else, this place would
look like a pig’s sty.” The speaker feels very unappreciated for her
efforts and discounts others to increase her sense of value. The
listener may feel criticized and hurt. These statements are made as
“truths” and are not interactive. A non-offensive way to deal with this
issue would be for the complainer to ask others in the home to assist
her in keeping it clean without assigning disinterest in cleanliness as
a flaw in their characters.

The healthy way of resolving annoyances is to lovingly state them to the
partner and request consideration and change.

To maintain healthy communication patterns in your relationship:

  •  Substitute “and” for “but” to have your whole sentence heard.
  • Avoid statements about life events that may be construed as a
    challenge to the commitment within the relationship.
  • Abstain from using rejecting or isolating phrases.
  • Avoid mumbling as a way to vent your frustration.
  • Refrain from making positive statements about your efforts, which
    indirectly discounts others.
  • Pay attention to your manner of speech – it is crucial in preserving
    good communication with your partner.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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