The 3 Things You Can't Say to Your Partner
A couples therapist shares common but toxic relationship roads-to-nowhere.
Posted Jan 06, 2017
If you want to grow vegetables, the soil in your garden needs a healthy ratio of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.* Your romantic relationship also has a formula for success: Research by John Gottman found that we need a 5-to-1 ratio of positive to negative interactions with our intimate partner in order for love to thrive.
People in the field of interpersonal neurobiology believe this finding makes perfect sense. Rick Hanson, for example, says that our brains are Velcro for that which is negative and Teflon for that which is positive. In other words, one snide comment will stick in our brains (and be replayed over and over), while compliments and kind gestures tend to count less.
This tendency confers an evolutionary advantage by keeping us alert to all of the dangers that proved deadly to our ancestors, but in modern life, this tendency is a major pain in the butt. It plays out in daily life all the time. For example, when I am lecturing in front of a room full of people, rather than focus on the many who are smiling, nodding, and taking notes, I always focus on the one dude snoozing in the back row. Sigh. Our brains are Velcro for negativity and Teflon for positivity.
What does this mean for our love life? It means that we need to be proactive about building a thick cushion of warmth and support so that we can weather the inevitable rough moments. It also means that we always need to be looking for ways to do more of the good and less of the bad. And it means that we need to be mindful of what we say and do if we want to create the conditions in which love can flourish.
Let’s consider these three things that you should never say to your romantic partner. (A caveat: I am leaving out obvious things you shouldn't say—name-calling, lying, threatening, and ultimatums. These are less overtly dramatic, but are problematic nonetheless—and I have heard them many times in my therapy office.)
1. “If you loved me, you would…”
When you say this, you are saying that you really want your partner to say or do something. The problem is that your partner can easily say back to you, “Well, if you loved me, you wouldn’t ask me to…” It is far more “intimacy-inviting” (as I describe it in my book) to say, “I am having such a hard time understanding what is keeping you from doing this. The story I am telling myself is that you must not love me very much.”
2. “Why isn’t it like it used to be between us?”
When people say this, they are fighting against the reality that love changes over time. The way you feel during the first year of a relationship is not the same as you feel in the seventh. And wishing the relationship was the way it used to be keeps you stuck in a fairy tale. Instead, ask for what you want, right here, right now. “I want us to go out on dates like we used to do,” or, “I would love for you to give me a massage like you used to.” Does this make you more vulnerable? Yes. More likely to get you what you want? Yes!
3. “You’re acting just like your mother!” (Or your father, or your Uncle Saul...)
Unless you say this in a complementary way (“You’re acting just like your mother, who always shows tremendous grace under pressure”), don't say it. Even if your declaration holds some truth, it is sure to start a fight. A comment like this is below the belt and likely to trigger nothing but defensiveness in a partner. Instead, describe the specific behavior your partner is exhibiting and talk about what that behavior stirs up in you. “You are raising your voice a lot right now. When you do that, I feel shut down and frustrated. It makes me want to pull away from you.”
Love is hard work, and bumps in the road are inevitable. The challenge is to figure out how to work together through the rough patches, instead of against each other. When you feel too angry to work together, it's far braver to say, "I'm going to take a break. I love us too much to say something now that I will regret later."
The climate between lovers is fragile, and comments like these are guaranteed to shift the space between you and your partner toward greater distance and hostility. See what happens when you think about your romantic relationship like a tomato plant: Remember that it’s your job (and your partner’s) to do everything you can to create the conditions that yield maximal yumminess and growth.
* I have no clue about nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. I just Googled “healthy soil conditions” because I needed an analogy. My gardening skills are woefully lacking, as evidenced by the four tomatoes and one oddly-shaped cucumber that my daughter and I managed to harvest last summer.
This article originally appeared at dralexandrasolomon.com