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5 Phrases That Can Kill a Relationship

... and alternatives that will bring you closer together.

Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock
Source: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

Any relationship can benefit from more closeness. Closeness is created between two people through knowing each other well and caring for each other openly. These are simple actions you can start doing any time, with anyone you choose. Closeness—the antidote to loneliness—is very much within your control.

One of the first things I encourage my clients to do to create more closeness in their relationships is to adjust their language in small but powerful ways.

Here are 5 phrases to avoid if you want your relationships to feel closer:

1. “Why?”

A first phrase to avoid is just one single word: “Why” isn’t the best way to pose a question to someone you want to be close to because it can unintentionally create defensiveness. “Why” is the language of accusation (“Why did you do that?”; “Why do you feel that way?”). Despite what may be innocent intentions, that single word primes another person to think of reasons to defend himself or herself.

To feel the subversive power of “why,” the next time you sit down to a nice dinner or to watch a movie, ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” Feel the anxiety it provokes? That’s the same anxiety most “why” questions provoke in others—and it’s an experience that will not bring you closer to someone

Alternative: Rephrase your “why” questions as “what” or “how” questions. “Why am I doing this?” becomes “What am I getting out of this?” Feel the difference? The first version accuses; the second just wants to understand.

2. “You need to…”

“You” is a tricky word in the closeness vocabulary. It can certainly bring people together (“You are so sweet”) but when it slides into telling your partner what he or she needs to be doing differently, it can definitely cause division.

The key phrases to pay attention to are the ones that begin with, “You need to…” (“You need to be more assertive"; “You need to be more organized”). These have the potential to hinder closeness because they imply that your partner should change in some specific way, based on your opinions. When creating closeness, it’s best not to present your opinions as mandates. “You need to” creates a mandate that will drive a wedge between people.

Alternative: Try focusing on your own experience of the situation. For example, “You need to be more assertive” might become, “I would like us to make more decisions together.” “You need to be more organized” might become, “I wonder if we can work on straightening out the closets.” Sharing your perspective on the situation fosters closeness and prevents gaps from forming.

3. “I’m sorry if…”

Almost everyone finds it hard to admit when they’ve done something wrong. But as we all make mistakes in our lives, apologizing is essential to maintaining closeness over a long period of time. One of the biggest mistakes people make here is starting an apology with, “I’m sorry if…” (“I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings”; “I’m sorry if you felt that way”).

These are not apologies that create closeness because closeness is bolstered by taking at least some responsibility when you’ve done something wrong. Using “if” in your apology allows you to dodge responsibility by putting it back on the other person. “I’m sorry if you felt that way.” See that big “you” there?

Alternative: Apologizing well is about being committed to taking some responsibility. “I’m sorry I…” and “I’m sorry for…” work infinitely better than “I’m sorry if…” A simple “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings” is the type of apology that brings people closer together.

4. “Why don’t you just…”

You know this phrase is trouble because it starts with a “why”—but it gets its own spot in the Top 5 because this and its other versions (“You could just…”; “You should just…”) shut down conversation when your partner needs it most—when he or she is struggling.

Giving your partner advice or offering up solutions to problems is great—when he or she asks for it. But when he or she simply wants to tell you about one of their struggles, inserting a “why don’t you just…” implies that the struggle is not valid. From your point of view it seems that it could easily be solved if they just did x, y, or z. This creates distance because, although it may not have been your intention, you just invalidated their experience.

Alternative: When your partner is struggling with something, your main task is to be present and engaged. That stance in its very simplicity creates the most closeness. And when he or she is ready to do something differently, then offer to help brainstorm solutions. Collaboration is advice, closeness-style.

5. “Not right now.”

Most of us lead busy lives and it’s not always possible to drop what you’re doing and listen to your husband’s work story, or take your mother’s call. Nevertheless, being engaged with those you want to be close to on a consistent basis is extremely important and the phrase “not right now” without any follow-up fosters a feeling of rejection.

Alternative: If you’re engrossed in something at the moment your partner wants to engage, try replacing “not right now” with a request for a specific amount of time. “I just need 20 minutes on this and then I’d love to listen,” elicits a totally different feeling from “not right now.”

Use these simple tips to start building closeness in your relationships now. It may take a while for your new language habits to take hold, but when they do you may see improvements in all of your relationships.

Facebook image: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

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