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Do You Hold Toxic Labels About Your Intimate Partner?

Saying or "just thinking" hurtful labels can destroy loving relationships.

Jennifer and Scott (names changed to protect confidentiality) are thinking about getting married but they have some issues that need to be worked out before making the final commitment. Like the fact that Scott thinks Jennifer is a “shopaholic.” Jennifer feels her shopping habits are not extreme, but Scott, who grew up in a frugal household, judges her by an extreme standard. Though she resents being labeled, Jennifer in turn calls Scott, "the world’s ultimate couch potato," which she says is not an insult, just a joke.

While not the topic of this post, I have also seen parents, unwittingly--and wittingly, do a lot of emotional damage to their children by thinking or expressing these toxic labels towards their children. Common ones include "lazy", "spoiled", "immature", and "selfish". Occasionally thinking in this way means we are human as parents. Dwelling on, magnifying, and intensifying these thoughts, however, is when they can be harmful. For more on this issue, please see the recently updated (2015) edition of 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child.

Getting back to couples, labels are so easy and convenient—what better way to express the frustration, anger, and resentment you may have about your partner than to sum them up in a short and sweet statement that gets the message across? Usually the message a label conveys is: “Mr. Couch Potato, I don’t like when you sit there and waste the only time we’ll have together this weekend.”

I often see an unfortunate paradox with toxic labeling, which I discuss in my relationship book, Why Can't You Read My Mind? People who assign labels to their partners are often using these labels to avoid how they really feel—angry or frustrated. Yet, the label they project onto their partners often reflects areas of dissatisfaction in themselves. I saw this first hand with a husband who labeled his wife as an unorganized slob, yet his own haphazard, inconsistent style had cost him his job. Partners who label are trying to use these labels to avoid dealing with the conflicts at hand. Conflicts not dealt with can’t be resolved. Unresolved conflicts erode relationships.

Label Slinging is further hazardous to your relationship because labels can injure your perception of your intimate partner and your partner of him- or herself. When Label Slinging occurs, the labeled partner literally loses his or her identity in the eyes of the other. We tend to want to keep confirming this label in our own heads. So, for example, if you label your husband as selfish, you will be on a mission to look for reasons why he is selfish—after all, isn’t that what you convinced yourself? It is incredibly ironic how so many people resort to labeling their partners, when they themselves resent being labeled!

There is another point about labeling in relationships. Often labels can start out being expressed from one partner to another in a playful manner. We have heard the expression, “Many a truth is spoken in jest.” What I’m saying here is that the playfulness of a label can easily turn toxic. For example, Scott may first begin labeling Jennifer as a shopaholic in a playful way. He may kid her about how she is solely responsible for supporting their local retail economy. And, Jennifer may tease Scott about being a couch potato. But, three years later, if Scott loses his job, Jennifer’s spending may be perceived in a more distorted toxic way and Scott’s retreating to the couch may also be viewed more negatively. Labels can be very toxic even when “I was only kidding” follows them.

The great news is that there is a way out of this toxic labeling trap. The hint I will offer here is that it involves shifting your thinking pattern from negative labels to more positive ones. Yes, it takes some work. But this is part of working smart versus working hard. Dwelling on your partners positive qualities can be a very positive influence for re-building love. Stay tuned for my next post for specific strategies to dispute and overcome toxic labeling in loving relationships.

Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist with over 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. Dr. Bernstein has authored four books, including the highly popular 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?, and Liking the Child You Love, (Perseus, 2009). You can click here to follow Dr. Jeff on Twitter.