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Do You Say This One Word Relationship Killer?

Being mindful to not say this toxic word will strengthen your love.

Many otherwise intelligent, hard-working people still struggle to become emotionally healthy partners. If you're reading this, you likely realize that that candlelight dinners and material gifts are not the things that truly sustain healthy relationships. What makes relationships thrive is working smart (vs. hard) to keep them alive and well. One way to improve your relationship by working smarter is to stop "shoulding" all over the one you love.

I doubt I am any smarter than most people reading my words. That said, I like to think I have learned to work smart in my relationships. To this end, I have virtually eliminated the word "should" from my vocabulary. Consistent with the tenets of cognitive therapy, I believe "should" 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.

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, they 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 still a very nurturing mother, is really sweet to my family, and even a great cook."

When distressed couples first walk into my office, or see me for on online sessions, 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, 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 toxic thoughts will still likely result in a partner committed to the "bottle-it-up-and-explode-later" plan.

And we all know that is 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 my latest book for teens, The Anxiety, Depression, and Anger Toolbox for Teens, I help young people learn—at this early stage of life—how to counter and manage toxic "shoulding" all over themselves and others, including intimate connections.

When we do "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.

Here's Some Great News

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."
  • Instead of, "You should stop only thinking about yourself all the time", try (thinking and) saying, "I want to hear what your thoughts and feelings are in hopes that I can share mine as well. I think we will both benefit from being open in a way that feels supportive to each of us."

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. I won't say, "You should try it," but rather, "I encourage you to consider it."

For more about Dr. Jeff, please click here.


Bernstein, J. (2020). The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (2nd Ed.) Perseus Books, New York, NY.

Bernstein J. (2009) Liking the Child You Love, Perseus Books, New York, NY.

Bernstein, J. (2019). The Stress Survival Guide for Teens. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Letting go of Anger—Card deck for teens. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Mindfulness for Teen Worry: (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications)

Bernstein, J. (2003) Why Can't You Read My Mind, Perseus Books, NY