Arguing is a part of every healthy relationship. You and your partner won't agree 100 percent of the time, and sometimes one or both of you will say or do something that upsets the other. When this happens and you have a fair fight, you both voice your issues, listen to each other, talk, disagree, talk some more, and come away feeling closer.
But many of us don't fight like that; we fight dirty. In my 35 years as a marriage and family therapist, there are certain fighting words and fighting phrases I see couples use repeatedly to get a rise out of each other—or to shut the other down:
People who fight dirty often do it because they're actually afraid of fighting, or don't want to take ownership of a fight. Instead of coming out and telling you they're upset or angry, a partner may radiate negative energy that begs you to ask, "What's wrong?" That's when your partner says the first fighting word: "Nothing."
Since it's obvious that something is wrong, "nothing" really means, "Of course I'm upset, but I'm afraid of bringing up anything that may start a fight, so I'm going to provoke you into starting one for me."
The next time your partner says, "Nothing," counter with, "That response is only going to get us into a fight. When you're ready to talk about it, I'm here to listen."
Let's imagine that your partner has just thrown out the first fighting word, "Nothing," and instead of countering with, "When you're ready to talk about it, I'm here to listen," you say, "I can tell something is wrong." That's when your partner drops the second fighting word: "Whatever."
"Whatever" can cut to your core—it's dismissive and minimizes your feelings and concerns.
Next time your partner says, "Whatever," don't take the bait and escalate the fight—which is often what a passive-aggressive partner wants. Instead, calmly say, "When you say that to me, I feel like you're not interested in how I feel or what I have to say—and that makes me feel bad."
If your partner doesn't offer a sincere apology, you've got to walk away and let them fume on their own. Otherwise, you're just agreeing to fight on their terms.
"You're never on time." "I'm always cleaning up after you." "I always go to your work parties; you never go to mine."
"Always" and "never" are rarely factual. When you use phrases that include "always" or "never," you're telling a partner that they can't ever do something right and that you don't believe they can change. This leads your partner to feel resigned and not try.
Why should your partner help you clean when, "Please take out the trash," translates to them as, "I'd like it if you took out the trash, but I know you won't"? You can't expect your partner to adopt an "I'll-prove-you-wrong" attitude.
Remove "always" and "never" from your relationship vocabulary. Instead, try "frequently" or "often," keep the focus on the present situation, and be specific: "It upset me when you were late today."
Let your partner know you have faith in them to change.
4. "You're just like your [father/mother/sister, etc.]"
This is another example of something a passive-aggressive partner would say to bait you into starting the fight they'd like to have. Instead of, "I feel like you're nagging me," your partner will say, "You're just like your mother."
Try to take a deep breath and simply respond, "It really upsets me when you compare me to my mother." Don't escalate—but let them know they've hurt you.
5. "You're too sensitive"/"You take things too personally"
"You're too sensitive" and "you take things too personally" imply that it's not OK for you be sensitive or feel slighted. These are fighting phrases, but they may also be cry-for-help phrases.
Your partner may be trying to say—albeit in a very unhelpful way—that they need to tell you something that may upset you but they're afraid of your reaction.
In my individual and couples counseling sessions, I teach my clients how to steer clear of the fighting words and fighting phrases that can turn a minor disagreement into a screaming match. When you can keep your fights clean, you keep the relationship healthy.
In my book, 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness, you will find KEY #6: Reframe Conflict, is devoted to conflict resolution and has a proven record of success. 8 Keys has 4.5 stars on Amazon.