Rediscovering Love

How to identify behaviors that undermine love—and how to avoid drifting apart

Speaking Before You Think: Foot-In-Mouth Syndrome in Committed Relationships

Forgetting how to speak to someone you love

Committed couples regularly say negative things to each other that they wouldn't say to anyone else. Without apparent forethought, they casually communicate critical comments they would never have uttered when their love was new.

A number of times every day in couples' counseling sessions, I watch as these intimate partners blurt out hurtful words or phrases without apparent forethought. When I point out the apparent level of tactless honesty that is happening, they are often surprised. They had not realized how much their day-to-day interactions had coarsened.

When they are made aware of how they are speaking to each other, they wonder how their communication could have possibly deteriorated to that extent. They are easily reminded that they automatically chose diplomacy in the beginning of their relationship. If they needed to say anything potentially hurtful to each other, they were careful to assess the risks before they spoke.

After their initial courting phase, every couple is susceptible to making these unfortunate spontaneous, tactless outbursts. They truly believe that their comments are just truthful representations of honesty, rarely consciously intended to cause the level of hurt they actually do. Unfortunately, these critical comments are not benign. They cause cumulative damage that will eventually effect the couple's ability to regain their once-intimate connection.

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Interestingly enough, these same people rarely forget to be diplomatic with others. In most situations outside of their committed relationship, they would think before they speak, and would not take the chance of casually offending someone.

Most long-time intimate partners lose that awareness. They have become so familiar with each other that they expect automatic forgiveness when they say something in a hurtful way. They forget that a more caring delivery is more likely to get them what they want.

When I ask my committed couples why they have forgotten to think first before they speak, they often tell me that they felt their partners would understand what they really meant, and not be offended. They agree that, if they'd thought about it, they might realize that their remarks would probably sting a little, but it was easier to take the chance than to remember to be careful.

Here is a typical exchange in a session when this couple was made aware of what they were doing:

Carole: "I thought it was kind of funny when I remarked that his love handles had grown geometrically in the last year. I never meant to make him feel bad. I really didn't."

Joe: "It was kind of funny at the time, but probably not so funny when I thought about it later. I wondered if she wasn't turned on to me anymore because I've gained a little weight. Now that I think about it, I guess I was hurt, even though I laughed and tried to let it go at the time."

Carole: "I never meant it to be anything but teasing in a loving way. But, now that we're talking about it again, I'm probably not really being totally truthful. Joe was a little pudgy when we were first together, but I never would have told him that way then. I do feel more turned on when he is in better shape, but it doesn't have anything to do with how much I love him. I don't know why I didn't tell him in a nicer way. I would have before."

Joe: "Now I remember coming back at you with a pretty tactless statement of my own. I said that you were probably trying to get me to feel unattractive so you could get away with your crush on that therapist on TV. We both laughed but I think I was just trying to make you feel guilty for what you said. I could have been a lot nicer about it."

Not only do caring partners blurt out these potentially painful statements, but they also tend to increase their callousness over time. Somehow they must expect their partners to build resilience and not be as offended. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. When the partners in an intimate relationship do not curb their unthinking, critical remarks, those comments can touch raw areas.

Early in the relationship:

"Honey, I don't want you to take this wrong, but I'm noticing that your hair is getting a little thin on top. I know guys are sensitive about losing their hair, but I don't want someone else to embarrass you without your expecting it."

When the relationship is established:

"Did you know that you're losing a lot of hair on the back of your head? You're combing it funny and it doesn't help. Wear a baseball cap or something if you feel weird about it. Lots of guys get thin on top. It's no big deal."

Early in the relationship:

"Sweetheart, I know you drank more than you intended. Let me take you home and tuck you into bed before you feel sick. I'm worried about you."

When the relationship is established:

"You know, you're really drunk. All our friends are talking behind your back. I need to get you home before you make a bigger fool of yourself. You really need to take this seriously. I'm embarrassed."

Early in the relationship:

"I'm okay, I really am. We can try making love again later, sweetheart. Everyone gets tired some of the time. You probably had a little too much to drink. It'll be okay."

When the relationship is established:

"I don't mind working at this, but I think it's time for you to get some Viagra."

Early in the relationship:

"I think you look beautiful no matter what you weigh. You'll always be exciting to me exactly as you are."

When the relationship is established:

"You know, you're getting a little rounder than you used to be. Your hour-glass is definitely bottom heavy. "

Remembering how to say things in an effective and caring way doesn't mean compromising integrity or honesty. Partners who have been together for a while need that kind of openness with each other. They want accurate feedback from someone they trust. But that isn't a license for delivering truth with a pointed spear.

The tools to be more caring and effective are not difficult to master. When you put them into practice, you can significantly reduce potential damage and still hold on to the integrity of honesty that you need from each other.

Before you say something that may be interpreted by your partner as critical, go through the following five steps:

Step One - Be clear to yourself about your feelings and your state of mind.

Go inside to make sure you know what your motivation is for what you are about to say, and what you are trying to get across. If you're feeling irritable, upset, or sad about something, you may want to wait until you feel better before you speak.

If you are going to explode if you don't talk about what you're experiencing, tell your partner first what's going on with you so he or she can be prepared. Make sure to say what is really going on with you. If your feelings come from an earlier, unresolved interaction, focus on that instead.

Step Two - Remembering your past interactions with your partner, think about any previous interactions that began with the way you are planning to speak now. Ask yourself the following questions:

What happened in the past when you said these things?
How did your partner feel and respond?
What was the outcome?
Do you want to repeat those same interactions?
How did you feel about your partner's response after you said what you said?
In retrospect, do you wish you had phrased it differently?

Step Three - Try to leave your own point of reference for a moment, and imagine how your partner will feel after you say what you're planning to say. Get into his or her space for a moment.

Can you really imagine what it is like to be him or her?
Do you want your comment to elicit what you believe it will?
How do you think he or she will respond to what you are about to say?
Are you willing to be responsible for the outcome?

Step Four - Were an objective party to witness a video of your intended interaction, what would he or she think of you as a partner?

Would you be okay with that observation?
If not, what would you be more comfortable with?
Is this imminent communication going to take you closer to, or farther from who you want to be?

Step Five - Using everything you know about wonderful connections between people who love each other, how is what you're about to say going to help you and your partner be the best you can be together?

Will your proposed statement, and the outcome, take good care of both of you?
Would there be a better way to say what you need to say that would result in a better result?

Here is an example. Pete and Beth have been together for nine years. They have a good relationship and care deeply about each other. Both are working hard at establishing careers, and the intimacy of the relationship is suffering. They haven't been as close lately, and are both looking for nurturing from the other.

The old way:

Pete is exhausted from a hard day and his partner is talking on and on, seemingly insensitive to how tired he is. He's trying to listen, but his patience is thinning and he's angry that Beth doesn't seem to get it. Without thinking about the consequences, he blurts out,

"Beth, you're talking non-stop and really overloading me. Can't you just get to the point?"

Beth visibly recoils, feeling chastised and rejected.

She responds. "You say you really care about me, Pete, but you obviously you don't. Why do you ask how I am and then dump this crap on me? I've got things to do, too. Let me know when you want some attention. Maybe you could send me your script the day before and I'll memorize the lines, okay?"

Pete gets more irritated. "I told you this was a hard time for me. You could be a little more sympathetic and not get off on your sarcasm. I'm going to bed."

There is no room for kindness, tact, or diplomacy in their interaction. They would never have spoken to each other like this early in their relationship and aren't even aware that their words are so insensitive now. Having hurt each other unnecessarily, they will probably sleep separately and wish they were together.

Using the five steps, Pete thinks about what's going on before he speaks.

Step One - How am I feeling on the other end of Beth's sharing her day with me?

I'm feeling really tired but I don't want to turn her down. She seems so bubbly and excited about what she's telling me, but I can't listen to very much more. I wish she could see how difficult this is for me right now and not put me in this position..

Step Two - What's has happened in our past that is similar to what is happening now?

When I've listened beyond my patience, I've gotten more irritable and said something that hurt her. I'm playing out the same pattern here. If I don't do it differently, she'll have every reason in the world to shut me out for the night, and I could really use some support. I need to be more effective here and not just repeat a stupid pattern from the past, for her sake and for mine.

Step Three - What would it be like for me to be her right now? What would she feel if I say something insensitive just to protect myself?

She knows I've been coming home late for a week now. I've had very little to give and I'm probably looking like I'm patronizing her. She's a caring person so she must have to work hard at not noticing my behavior so that she can get a little attention. I don't want to let her down but I can't go on much longer. Maybe I can just tell her how much I appreciate her but that I need her to help me rest right now. I sure don't want to hurt her just to get my own needs met.

Step Four - How would others see us right now?

Objective observes would see me being a martyr and tolerating someone I care about because I'm so into my own deal. They'd see me building up resentment while pretending to pay attention. If I let go and let her have it, they would see me as invalidating her and making her feel stupid. I wouldn't feel proud of my behavior. I need to find another way. Maybe I don't trust her enough to let her know how exhausted I am..

Step Five - What would be the best way to handle this situation?

A perfect interaction here would be for me to just let her know how I feel and ask her to help me rather than cause her unnecessary distress. I do love her but this just isn't the right time for me to listen enthusiastically. I'll ask her to take care of me a little first and promise to be a better listener later this evening. I need to remember that she isn't out to use me and needs to understand what she can do to help the situation. She's always been there for me when I've needed her. Why do I forget that?

Using the five steps, Pete puts out a different dialogue:

"Honey, I'd love to hear about your day. I want you to share it with the enthusiasm you're feeling, but I can't do it right now. I'm in a lousy mood and way too tired to give you what you want. I've let my own stuff get in the way in the past and blamed you for not caring enough to understand. I know that you miss being close and you're trying to share your life with me. You deserve to. Can you give me a little time to relax and let go? I'd really appreciate it. How about I take a shower and check my email. Then let's have a glass of wine and turn off the TV. I want to give you the kind of quality time you deserve. I need your help to do this right."

Beth responds: "When you open up to me and tell me how much you're hurting, I just want to love you back. I don't need to load you up with senseless details of my day, Pete. I just miss you so much. Don't worry, okay? Everything's going to be fine."

This couple's return to sensitive, caring communication will begin to heal the distance both have been feeling.

Learning to think before you talk to your intimate partner can seem weighty and mechanical at first, but after a while, it becomes much more automatic. Sometimes your negative feelings will emerge before you get a change to get things under control and you'll have to do these steps with your partner after the fact. Even though it would obviously have been better to do them up front, they will still make things better.

A helpful exercise:

It is not that the partners in an intimate commitment should never feel critical of each other. Relationships are not perfect and disappointments over unmet expectations are bound to happen. But when the many unnecessary critical remarks are removed, the way is cleared for genuine differences to be aired and resolved without sitting on a platform of cumulative hurts that should never have happened.

Think of some of the repeated, negative and ineffective interactions you and your partner have had in the past when you have spoken critically without thinking it through first. Then share them with each other. When you have, role-play them as if they were happening again in the moment practicing the steps. Alternate the roles so both of you get to practice. Give each other continuous feedback as to how well you are doing, especially in Step Three where you have to guess what your partner is experiencing on the other end of you.

If you practice these steps on a regular basis, your relationship will change for the better in a very short time. Even intended, conscious arguments diminish, and the relationship heals more quickly as a result.

Randi Gunther, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor practicing in Southern California.

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