Five words and phrases that trigger conflict in a relationship, and what to say instead

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"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn"

We all know that good communication maketh the relationship, and the devil is in the detail.

The language we use is full of nuance and subtlety, meaning even little changes can shift the tenor of an argument or debate. Words are powerful things, and certain phrases serve as a conduit to spreading blame and defensiveness.

These aren't as obvious as swearing or name-calling, but they can be just as destructive over a long-time period.

Not only do they obstruct the process of listening and compromising, they also create a repetitive cycle that gnaws away at intimacy and understanding. 

Drawing from the expertise of leading psychologists and relationship therapists, we've identified five expressions to avoid when speaking to your partner, and what to say instead:

"What’s wrong with you?"

The word "you" can be empowering or destructive, depending on what context it's used in. As an accusatory label, it's judgmental and communicates blame in a way that will only raise the other person's defenses. 

"Communication and being understood is hard enough," explains Keith Artisan, of the wellbeing blog Elephant Journal. "Once defenses have been raised there is then an additional effort required to work with the defenses. 

"When used with anger, frustration and negativity 'you' becomes one of the most harmful words ever... The word you is blaming and shaming. 'You never listen.' 'You are thoughtless'. And while saying something like that may be true at times, it is never true at all times."

He suggests using the word "I" to take responsibility for your feelings ("I'm not being heard", "I feel unhappy when you see X because...").

Psychologist Julie Gottman says the important thing is to use kindness to inform how you communicate your feelings. 

 "You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and angry, and that’s the kinder path," she says.

"Disasters will say things differently in a fight. Disasters will say ‘You’re late. What’s wrong with you? You’re just like your mom.’ Masters will say ‘I feel bad for picking on you about your lateness, and I know it’s not your fault, but it’s really annoying that you’re late again."

"I'm sorry if..." 

It's the "if" component that's problematic here, as it casts a sense of doubt over your partner's grievances. If you're sorry, say so. Own up and take responsibility. 

"Using 'if' in your apology allows you to dodge taking responsibility by putting it back on the other person. 'I’m sorry if you felt that way.' See that big glaring 'you' there?" says relationships coach Kira Asatryan

"These are not apologies that work well in creating closeness because closeness is bolstered by taking (at least some) responsibility when you’ve done something wrong,"

The same goes for an apology made using a "but". It negates whatever you have just said, and turns a positive message into a negative one. A "but" in an apology often implies a postscript, which will only serve to escalate things once more. 

"By far the worst and most common anti-apology is the postscript," says LukeMcKinney, of "You've choked out a 'sorry,' things have calmed down, and you can't help but sling one last barb."

Since we all make mistakes, knowing how to apologise without qualification is essential to maintaining intimacy and trust in a long-term relationship. 

The kind of apology that works best and draws people together is simple and direct; "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings". "I'm sorry for getting stressed".

"Why are you getting so upset?"

This phrase or anything similar ("Why are you overreacting?") is a typical passive-aggressive stance, i.e. "a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger", according to this 2008 definition

"The passive aggressive person is a master at maintaining his calm and feigning shock when others, worn down by his indirect hostility, blow up in anger," says Signe Whitson, author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplace. "In fact, he takes pleasure out of setting others up to lose their cool and then questioning their 'overreactions.'"

Passive aggression will only end up escalating the anger and upset felt by your partner and is a damaging strategy in the long-run.

Instead, try "direct, emotionally honest, assertive communication," says Andrea Brandt, author of 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness.

She suggests validating your partner's feelings by acknowledging where they come from, even if you don't agree with them. For example, "X, I understand you're upset because you have to move your night out in order to have dinner with my family. However, It's very important to me and I appreciate you doing it."

"I always do everything; you never help me out"

All-or-nothing absolutes such as "always" and "never" are all too easy to fire off in arguments, and we tend to use them a lot.

They are negative and unhelpful, as they directly get in way of the listening and compromising that's needed in the process of conflict resolution. Not only that, but they can work as a barrier to intimacy.

"Always and never conversations are also about wanting to feel good about ourselves and dumping our negative feelings onto our partner," says psychologist Dr. Bill Cloke. "We feel righteous, good and superior and the other person becomes inferior, selfish and uncaring. This may be a defense against being truly intimate. The more we are able to devalue the other person the less we have to need them."

Instead of using always or never during an argument, try to voice what exactly it is you want from your partner - or what it is they want from you. Communication is a two-way process and requires both of you to focus on the problem, and the solution. 

Try to work out the root of your partner's feelings (the "why" behind them) and understand the emotion of what is going on behind the words. Make an effort to hear it objectively, without getting defensive. 

"If we suggest to our partner what they can do next time or state what it is that that we need and want, or talk about how hurt we feel, then a dialogue can be formed," says Cloke. 

"I don't mind"

Using the phrase "I don't mind", or variations of it ("whatever", "you choose") may seem innocuous, but it can be corrosive.

By ducking out of expressing your opinion - or trying to be easygoing - you can very quickly pave the way to conflict, as couples mediator Laurie Puhn explains

"Your mate asks, 'What do you want to do for your birthday?' You answer, 'Honey, whatever you want.' Then you end up eating at the Italian restaurant you absolutely hate, with your extended family, who are not on the top of your friends list."

Not making an active decision or asserting yourself is not only energy-draining, it avoids pitching together the differences between you and your partner.

And without hashing that out, you don't have full understanding and trust.

"When you don't take the time to reveal your true thoughts, whether it's about where to eat, where to honeymoon, or who to sit with at your wedding, it's only a matter of time before you begin to resent your mate for not knowing what you really want," says Puhn. "In turn, your mate begins to resent you for placing the burden of decision-making entirely on his or her shoulders.

Instead of using passive language to be nice or avoid thinking about something, actively consider what it is you want and take the time to express that (even if it means you first say, "I need a moment to think about this"). 

"You might end up in a disagreement, but that is a good thing because the end result will better reflect both of your desires. Listen to your mate's perspective, then ask that he/she listen to yours. Finally, look for a compromise. That's how to set up your relationship for long-term success."

Words: Anna Brech, Photos: ThinkStock

What do you think? What are the definite no-nos when it comes to words and phrases exchanged between two people in a long-term relationship? Share your thoughts in the comments below

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