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The Word “Should” May Hurt Both You and Your Relationship

Yet it may be unavoidable.

Charlie Foster/Unsplash
Source: Charlie Foster/Unsplash

In an earlier post on the common expression “Woulda Coulda Shoulda,” I noted that shoulds (and shouldn’ts) refer to possibilities without any genuine basis in reality. When sarcastically uttered by someone accusing another of blameworthy behavior, it’s clear that the individual regards the speaker’s usage of “Should have, but...” Or “Shouldn’t have, but...” as that offender self-servingly trying to rationalize or excuse themselves from some culpable act—whether that act is one of omission or commission.

This post will take us in quite a different direction. It’s not about mercilessly “shoulding” yourself, as in having a harsh “inner critic” that won’t leave you alone. Neither is it about making facile excuses to someone you’ve misled or let down.

Plainly stated, it’s about the rarely-recognized core reason that you—and just about everyone else—struggle mightily to abstain from shoulding others, which is to say, can hardly help avoid criticizing them. For shoulds—and particularly shouldn’ts—are an incredibly tempting way of attacking another when their behavior doesn’t accord with your expectations. And regrettably, it can be extremely detrimental to relationships.

It could, for example, take the form of “You shouldn’t..."

  • Drive so fast (or so slow)
  • Let things go to the last minute
  • Do it that way
  • Talk to me in such a [dismissive, demeaning, or derogatory] manner
  • Spend so much time on the phone talking to your friends or your family (or watching ball games, playing video games, checking your email, etc.)
  • Invest so much money in the stock market
  • Allow yourself so much dessert
  • Be so sensitive
  • Get so upset

...And so on.

If you ask yourself what all these different shouldn’ts have in common, you’ll discover that whatever you’re criticizing the other person for, you’re doing so because their behavior makes you uncomfortable. So the fundamental question is what—at the deepest psychological level—is it about them or what they’re doing that can’t help but feel annoying or unacceptable? And, invariably, what you’ll discover—if, that is, you’re brutally honest with yourself—is that the answer here will likely be far less about them than about you.

When our beliefs, preferences, ways of doing things, or, more generally, our very personality is at serious variance from the people we feel closest to, then—although it’s almost always unconscious—we feel threatened by these differences. It’s as though who they are, their core identity, somehow denies, negates, or disconfirms who we are. So, to assert the legitimacy of our own (discordant) being, we’re irresistibly driven to invalidate or find fault with them.

In fact, virtually all marital conflicts can be explained on the basis of each member of the couple being made to feel uneasy and threatened by dissimilarities with their partner. And the whole notion of incompatible or irreconcilable differences revolves around these thorny, hard-to-resolve issues.

Obviously, as like-minded as a couple may be, they’re not clones of each other either. So several times a day (or more), their indisputable disparities will probably cause a bump in tension and discomfort between them. But as already suggested, they’ll probably have little or no awareness of the relational dynamic that prompts them, however momentarily, to experience a vague, distressing sense of alienation from one another.

Most importantly, if neither has reached the evolutionary human apex of unconditional self-acceptance (and frankly, how many of us really have?), each will begin to question themself when their partner isn’t in harmony with them. And rather than feeling like they’re wrong, bad, or inadequate, it’s far less unpleasant to look at the other person as flawed. This is why—almost universally—our immediate impulse is to invalidate the other person the moment we experience them as having invalidated us. And this can pertain to things as petty and inconsequential as how our partner inserts a toilet tissue roll into the dispenser(!).

So here’s the bottom line (semi-conscious, at best), should really means:

“You should be more like me...”

“...then [to complete this idea] I’d feel a lot more comfortable about you and our relationship." (And, it should be added, in almost every instance—as measured by each party’s relative degree of personal security—the feeling will be more or less mutual.)

If this conclusion sounds strange, overstated, or even childish, ask yourself: In your own relationship (past or present), doesn’t that account for almost all the frustrations you've had with your partner? Only the wisest, most enlightened individuals are able to live a life without experiencing the need to judge others or react to others judging them. And they can avoid doing so only because they’re unconditionally self-accepting and accepting of others. It really doesn’t matter how others might differ from them or evaluate them. Confident and secure about themselves, their inner regard simply isn’t vulnerable to interpersonal discrepancies.

But sadly, for the rest of us, we can hardly help putting someone down when, in the moment, they appear to be discrediting how we need to see ourselves. Whenever (though unintentionally) their words or actions start to make us doubt ourselves, our positive sentiments toward them almost automatically decline.

A final irony in all this is that during courtship, we’re typically attracted to our prospective mate’s differences. Unconsciously, it feels as though they’ll “complete” us and, too, fulfill needs never adequately met by our original family. And that feels especially true if our potential life partner has exhibited a level of caring and concern we’d missed growing up. It’s only after the “honeymoon is over” stage that we get into the well-nigh universal power struggle over whose needs ought to take priority. And until there’s some awareness as to what, beneath the surface, is going on, this unfortunate relational stage can last indefinitely.

Experts have repeatedly emphasized that the healthiest marital relationships aren’t competitive but cooperative or collaborative. So, a secondary should message, as it relates specifically to a couple’s being in the throes of a power struggle, involves the childish notion (one that neither party would ever be inclined to admit):

“You should put my needs ahead of yours.”

Not that we’re all so selfish and demanding as to deliberately subjugate our partner’s needs, wants, and desires to our own. But to the extent that we’re secretly looking to our significant other to help us feel more secure—vs. taking it upon ourselves to resolve whatever issues of insecurity we brought to the union in the first place—our frustrations or discontentedness with them can more or less continue unabated.

Therefore, the initial step in getting past whatever “should-inflicted” impasse may currently be affecting your relationship is to become cognizant of it. The next step will involve reexamining what’s not working in your relationship from a more objective, adult, and less needy perspective. And the third step is to systematically replace your many shoulds with reasonable requests that don’t require your partner to sacrifice their integrity or reconfigure their personality to comply with your admittedly self-interested preferences.

But what’s pivotal in all this is that you make every effort to compassionately understand and accept your spouse’s differences. Take full responsibility for your own biases that, inevitably, have been both biologically and environmentally programmed (as have your partner’s) and alter your assumptions about their being inherently superior to your mate’s.

Doing so conscientiously will help you discover that most of the ways your partner differs from you no longer need to be experienced as a threat to your essential okayness.

© 2020 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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