Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

This One Word Is a Relationship Killer

Think about how your word choice impacts your satisfaction.

Key points

  • All couples are prone to toxic thoughts lurking in their minds and coming out in hurtful ways.
  • Managing your thoughts, including negative, rigid, "shoulds" is crucial for healthy relationships.
  • The way to manage toxic "shoulding" is by disputing these thoughts with more supportive, positive, encouraging ones.

Gladys was on a roll during our counseling session, which was heavily focused on her frustrations about her boyfriend, Antonio:

"We have been together for three years and he should want to take things to the next level," she said. "He should know that I want to get a place together, get married, and have kids. Yet, all he does is act like a kid himself. He should know better!"

As you can see, the word should pops up liberally as Gladys describes her concerns. Consistent with the tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy, I believe this word, should, engenders a controlling, judgmental dynamic. Thinking "should" about someone you love, or being on the receiving end of a "should," creates negativity and resentment. Over time, this "shoulding" on your partner can become toxic to your relationship.

"Should" Thoughts Take a Toll on Relationships

If partners harbor internalized, hidden, toxic thoughts, then couples therapy that focuses on reflective-listening drills may not expose these underlying empathy-depleting thoughts.

As a further example,, consider Jerome's expressed versus inner dialogue with his partner, Sheri:

  • Verbalized request: Can you please help me declutter our apartment?
  • Underlying toxic thought: She shouldn't be living as this impossible, self-centered hoarder.

If Jerome keeps thinking along these lines, he is going to put himself on the "bottle it up and explode later plan." We all know this is not a good plan. A better plan for Jerome is to be willing to manage his toxic shoulding on Sheri.

Jerome could challenge his should thinking about Sheri by actively disputing this thought. If Jerome opens up his mind to detoxify his thoughts about her, he may now bring more healthy, supportive thoughts about her, such as this:

  • "Sheri brings me a lot of joy and loves me deeply. Rigidly and disrespectfully expecting her to be neater is not fair. It will help me to remind myself that she is still a very nurturing mother, is really sweet to my family, and a great cook."

Reflective Listening Is Great, Especially if It Follows Self-Reflection

I can't count the number of times 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 think this exercise can 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 thoughts will still likely result in a partner saying or doing hurtful things. We all know that is not a productive, sane way to be in a loving relationship.

More Thoughts About "Should"

Returning to the opening remarks, we need to acknowledge that many toxic thoughts begin with "should." Even if we think we're only doing so in the privacy of our own minds, these thoughts can manifest in our tone or actions, often leaving a partner experiencing a different word that begins 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. Check out these examples below:

  • 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 occur so incessantly but so subconsciously. Taking the time to be mindful, catch your thoughts, and dispute or change them will take you and your partner to a much better place in your relationship.


Bernstein, J. (2020), The Anxiety, Depression & Anger Toolbox for Teens: 150 Powerful Mindfulness, CBT & Positive Psychology Activities to Manage Emotions, PESI Publishing, EuClaire, WA.

Bernstein, J. (2003). Why Can't You Read My Mind? Overcoming the 9 Toxic Thought Patterns that Get in the Way of a Loving Relationship Paperback, Perseus Books, New York, NY

Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, second edition: The Breakthrough Program for Overcoming Your Child's Difficult Behavior Paperback, Hachette Publications, New York, NY.