The Most Toxic (Non-Four-Letter) Word in Any Relationship

....and how to stop yourself from even thinking it

Posted Mar 27, 2016

Candlelight dinners and material gifts are wonderful. You've probably learned by now, however, that they are not the things that truly sustain healthy relationships. Why is it that many otherwise intelligent, hard-working people still struggle to become emotionally healthy partners?  The answer is that it is not just how you communicate with your intimate partner but also how you think about him or her!  

One way to improve your relationship: Stop "shoulding" all over the one you love

I have virtually eliminated the word should from my vocabulary and I try to be aware of when it even enters my mind. Consistent with tenets of cognitive therapy, I believe this word 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 any relationship, especially a loving one.

As I write in my book, Why Can't You Read My Mind?, if partners harbor internalized, hidden toxic thoughts, even 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 going to be a slob," then no paraphrase will rid themselves of this toxic underlying belief. For a toxic-thinking partner to benefit in this situation, he or she must first be willing to challenge the toxic thought. In this case, the way to dispute the toxic thought might 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, aside from that, she is a still a very nurturing mother, is really sweet to my family, and even a great cook."

When distressed couples first walk into my office, they often look like the walking wounded. They often report 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 usually oblivious to something very much closer—their own toxic thoughts.

I can't count the number of times that couples have shared that they had seen a counselor in the past who instructed them in the practice of reflective listening. This exercise typically entails each person stating how he 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 couple's therapists, really does have considerable value. But is what comes out of our mouths really reflective of our true inner thoughts? Sadly, even while practicing this technique, a heightened, emotionally-laden barrage of inner toxic thoughts will still likely result with a partner committed to the "bottle-it-up-and-explode-later" plan.

And we all know that is a not a productive, sane way to be in a loving relationship.

Returning to the opening remarks above, we need to acknowledge that many toxic thoughts begin with Should. In this way we tend to "should" all over our partners, and even if we think we're only doing so in the privacy of our own minds, it can come out in our tone or actions, often leaving a partner experiencing a different word that beings with Sh.

If you guessed that this word is Shame, you're correct. But if you can replace your shoulds with "would likes", many toxic thoughts could 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 but so often outside of true awareness. Taking the time to be mindful, catch your toxic thoughts, and dispute or change them will take you and your partner to a much better place in your relationship.

For more on toxic relationships, see "Three Signs That You Are In A Toxic Relationship."

Check out Dr. Jeff's completely updated, 2nd edition of 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, endorsed by the Wall Street Journal as helpful for parents of defiant children. 

Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist with more than 25 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. Bernstein has authored four books—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?(link is external), and Liking the Child You Love (Perseus, 2009).