I have virtually eliminated the word, "should" from my vocabulary. I believe this word, consistent with the tenets of cognitive therapy, engenders a controlling, judgmental dynamic. Thinking "should" about someone you love or being on the receiving end of a "should" creates negative energy and, over time, can be toxic for all relationships, especially loving ones.

As described in my book, Why Can't You Read My Mind?, if relationship partners harbor internalized, hidden toxic thoughts, reflective listening drills may not expose these underlying empathy depleting thoughts. For example, if a partner is saying "I need you to please pick up after yourself more often", yet inwardly thinking, "You are always gonna be a lazy slob" then paraphrases will likely not rid this toxic underlying belief. For a toxic thinking partner to benefit in this situation, he must first be willing to challenge his toxic thought. In this case, the way of disputing the toxic thought may be, "She brings me a lot of joy and loves me deeply but rigidly and disrespectfully expecting her to be neater is not fair. It will help me to remind myself that she is a very nurturing mother to our kids, cooks well, and really is sweet to my family."

When distressed couples first walk into my office they look like the walking wounded. They often cite that the problematic way they communicate with each other is the real reason they have relationship problems. While this explanation has some merit, they are sadly oblivious to something very much closer to themselves---their own toxic thoughts.

I can't even count the number of times that couples share that they had seen a counselor in the past where they were told and instructed on how to do reflective listening. This exercise typically entails each person stating how her or she feels. The other partner then listens and paraphrases what was heard and receives feedback on how accurately he or she listened. I do think this exercise, which tends to be a "go to" activity for many couples therapists, can have considerable value.

This may not solve the problem of the partner being messy. And, complicating matters, a heightened, emotionally laden barrage of inner toxic thoughts will likely result with the concerned partner signing up for the "bottle it up and explode later plan." Of course, we all know that is a not a productive, sane way to be in a loving relationship.

Returning to the opening remarks of this post, many toxic thoughts/statements begin with "Should." In this way we tend to "should" all over our relationship partners." Shoulding all over our partners, even in the privacy of our own minds, can come out in our tone or actions. This can leave your intimate partner feeling like a different word that beings with "Sh."

If you guessed that this Sh word is SHAME, then you are correct. The good news is that if your "Shoulds" are replaced with "Would Like" the resulting toxic thoughts can be avoided. Try it:

Instead of, "You should know how I feel.", try thinking and saying, "I would like you to please hear me out on this."

Instead of, "You shouldn't bring that up.", try thinking and saying, "I would like to consider what you are saying, please let me sit with it for a little while before I respond."

It amazes me how toxic thoughts in couples occur so incessantly and so often out of true awareness. For more on toxic relationships see my recent post, Three Signs That You Are In A Toxic Relationship. Taking the time to be mindful, catch your toxic thoughts, and dispute/change them will take you and your partner to a much better place in your relationship.

Teaser image credit: Pixabay

Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist with over 23 years of experience specializing in child, adolescent, couples, and family therapy.  He holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the State University of New York at Albany and completed his post-doctoral internship at the University of Pennsylvania Counseling Center. He has appeared on the Today Show, Court TV as an expert advisor, CBS Eyewitness News Philadelphia, 10! Philadelphia—NBC, and public radio. Dr. Bernstein has authored four books, including the highly popular 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (Perseus Books, 2006), 10 Days to a Less Distracted Child (Perseus, 2007), Why Can't You Read My Mind?, and Liking the Child You Love, Perseus, 2009). 

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