Fighting Words: Phrases that Cause Contention

You’re discussing something your partner feels strongly about. Suddenly you use that combination of words that makes his/her blood boil. You might have a legitimate point to make, but it’s no good now—the chance your partner will listen and take your point seriously has just dropped to zero. Not because your information is wrong, but because now your partner won’t even look at it. The problem in difficult relationships is never that “he leaves his socks everywhere,” or “she’s constantly complaining,” the problem is how partners manage socks and complaining—it’s what we say and do about it and especially how we say and do it that will often make or break the relationship.

Being more loving means putting things in ways that are less likely to upset your partner. This article starts with a discussion of a few of the words and phrases likely to rile us, along with some suggestions for less volatile replacements. After that, it suggests a way for you and your partner to keep such phrases from pulling you off base.

“Mend your speech a little, lest it may mar your fortunes.”

—William Shakespeare

“You”

As in: You are being so inconsiderate, or You’re making me so mad right now. Telling someone “You are doing this,” or “You are making me feel that” is an accusation, and nobody likes to feel accused; we usually get defensive. If you notice those things going on inside yourself—you’re feeling disregarded, or angry for example—then take responsibility for those feelings by saying “I’m not feeling very considered,” or “I’m feeling really frustrated right now.” Speaking about this a friend said, “My wife got that exactly right after we got married. She said, ‘When I go to bed after you and my side of the bed is not turned down, I start to think maybe you’re mad at me or that you don’t love me.’” My friend told me for the rest of their marriage he turned down her side of the bed first. “Not only that, but for a month I also left a little love note on her pillow.” He and I agreed that if she had tossed some “yous” in there, accusing him of being inconsiderate, it would not have gone so well.

 

“But”

As in, “That’s a good idea, but…” or “I appreciate it, but…” When we stick our “buts” into something positive we’ve just said, we tend to unsay it. “That’s a good idea, but…” means we don’t really think it’s a good idea. “I appreciate it, but…” means we don’t really appreciate it. It also emphasizes the negative part by putting it last. It’s weird that word order should matter so much, but it does. For example, it feels much better to most people when they hear, “You’re kind of lazy, but I love you,” than it does to hear “I love you, but you’re kind of lazy.” The first sentence leaves most people feeling loved, while the second leaves them feeling unloved and lazy. Instead of negating with a “but,” try augmenting with an “and.” Instead of “You’re a great partner, but you need to stand up to your mom more,” try, “You’re a great partner and I’d love to see you stand up to your mother on this.”

 

Dismissing words and phrases

As in: “That’s ridiculous” or “That’s B.S.” or “That’s the craziest thing I ever heard.” When someone uses one of these phrases I instantly know they are not only dismissing my idea without looking at any of it’s potential merits, I also feel like they are dismissing me. I suddenly feel insulted and want to defend my sensibility, credibility, or sanity.  Instead of dismissing your partner’s idea when you find yourself disagreeing with it, work hard to look at the merits of it from his or her point of view. List them aloud, and explain why you think those merits are important to him/her. And before you give your concerns about it—if it’s important for you to do so—be careful not to stick that dreaded “but” into the sentence. Give your partner full credit for having a brain in this way, and he/she will much more likely hear your opinions about the subject.

 

“Why”

As in, “Why are you late?” or “Why didn’t you text me back?” You may simply want information, but asking a Why is usually not a good way to get it. When asked “why” we often feel defensive and try to justify ourselves. Instead of “why,” consider either looking for more information with a “what,” or making a neutral guess about things. For example, instead of “Why are you late?” simply ask, “What happened?” I mean, you don’t know. They may have been mugged or passed a kidney stone on the way home. Instead of “Why didn’t you text me back?” make a neutral guess like, “Did you get swamped after I texted you?”

 

“If you really loved me you would…”

“ …you would take me on a vacation. …let me get a dog. …have sex with me more often,” and on and on. Feeling unloved because your partner is not doing what you want is a “you problem,” not a “him/her” problem, and confusing that creates tension. If you are truly not getting the love you want, then that needs to be addressed. But it’s not going to get better by accusing him/her of being unloving when he/she doesn’t comply. Whenever you feel tempted to use this phrase, take it as a signal that you might benefit not only from (1) learning to more effectively get your love needs met, and (2) learning to feel more comfortable in a world (and a relationship) in which others do what they want to do, not what you want them to do.

 

“Why do you always have to…?” or “Why can’t you ever… ?”

As in “Why do yo always have to interrupt me?” or “Why can’t you ever pick your socks up?” Not only do these phrases use the dreaded “You” and the defensiveness-provoking “Why” already discussed, the use of absolutes like “always” and “never” are great ways to raise the hackles. When our partner uses these terms we immediately look for the one exception. Suddenly we’re not talking about her frustration at having been interrupted; now we’re talking about whether the statement is always completely true or not. One idea for replacing absolutes is to fess up to your own feelings at the moment using “I statements.” I statements also help you avoid making accusations. “I felt kind of dismissed and disrespected when you cut me off just now,” or even better, “I will feel much more respected in this conversation if I can finish my sentences” Regarding the socks on the floor example, how about turning a “but” to your advantage? “I know it doesn’t bother you much to have socks lying on the floor, but when you pick them up and they’re not there in the morning I know you’re thinking about me, and I feel loved.”

 

Unflattering comparisons

As in “Why can’t you be more like my mother and make me breakfast every day?” or “You know, all my previous boyfriends bought me dinner at least once a week.” What is our purpose for telling someone they don’t measure up to someone else in some respect or another? It’s insulting and shaming. When we do this we are actually saying, “Other people are like that. What’s the matter with you?” The solution? Take personal responsibility for your needs. Train yourself not to push your dissatisfaction onto your partner. The reason you are unhappy about something in your relationship is not because your partner is different from someone else. Once again, you yourself are responsible for getting your needs met in your relationship. Your partner is there to help you, but it’s your job. If you haven’t figured out how, get creative. Get some ideas from books, professionals, brainstorm, even ask your partner for help solving your problem. But allow it to be your problem to solve and find a solution that brings you closer together—not insults that push you apart.

 

Blaming

Saying “This is your fault” or worse, “This is all your fault” is obvious blaming, but more subtle blame can be behind, “We need to talk.” If it feels like blaming, the assumption may be that you are really wanting to say, “We need to talk because you’re doing something that is bothering me. Sit down here and let me spell out how flawed you are.” You may have no such intention, but if you have a habit of unintentionally blaming your partner for your unhappiness, then (1) without intending to you may be subtly conveying that message, and (2) your partner is probably sensitized to it and expecting the blame even when it isn’t there. As with some of the other fighting words above, blaming comes from the belief that your happiness depends on the people around you doing what you want them to do. It doesn’t. It depends on you choosing to do things that help you be happy—including choosing to interact happily with positive and loving people.

 

What to do if you notice yourself using one or more of these “fighting words.”

Make a commitment to stop using words and phrases that just cause conflict.
Share your commitment with your partner and others.
Discuss the specific words and phrases you want to stop using. Accept your partner’s ideas too.
Bite your tongue before the words are said.
Stop yourself at any point in saying them.
Refuse to make excuses for saying harmful things—if it hurts the relationship, it’s still wrong: even if your partner did something wrong first.
Apologize immediately and back off your point—you’ll have to make it at another time because you’ve already spoiled the moment
Recommit to yourself and your partner to stop the harmful speech.

What to do when your partner uses “fighting words.”

Seek a commitment from your partner to stop using words and phrases that cause conflict
Share with him/her the above steps
Follow the above steps yourself if you or your partner feel you sometimes use “fighting words.”
Say, “When you use that kind of phrase my emotions get riled up and I can’t talk reasonably about the subject anymore. Let’s talk about something else for a while and then we can come back to this.”
Stay present and connected to your partner, just talk about something nice or neutral for a while
Offer sincere apologies if you were even a little harsh or escalated
Accept your partner’s apologies and recommitment to stopping fighting words

Did this article help you in some way?

What are some of the other fighting words or phrases you most love to hate?

Please scroll down to leave your comment below.

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14Comments

  1. BethanySeptember 29, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    I found this article to be very interesting. Many of the “fighting words” were all too familiar and I realized that I have hurt many people using them. The sentences beginning with “why” seemed especially familiar. Thank you for writing this eye opening article

  2. natalieSeptember 30, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    For me why and but are my fighting words. I want to feel like i am in control all the time and saying these words make me feel like i almost have the upper hand. i hate them and sometimes regret using them.

    • Michael Bean MS, LMFTSeptember 30, 2011 at 9:01 pm

      They’re very common in the way we tend to express ourselves, so they’re very easy to use. They sure don’t help the communication process though, do they?

  3. Penelope HeraOctober 4, 2011 at 8:38 am

    Subject: Fighting words article

    Thanks for sharing the article about fighting words. Many good points
    brought up! The “I” message is so important!

    I’ve learned through smarter folks that I don’t have to get drawn into
    harsh words or an argument. I can say that I’m too upset to gather my
    thoughts right now. I can ask for a time out and a rain check on the
    discussion. I don’t always think to do it before things get bad, but I
    have done it sometimes and it helps defuse and make time for a reality
    check to happen…
    How important is it really?

    Thanks. Penelope Hera

    • Michael Bean MS, LMFTOctober 4, 2011 at 6:01 pm

      Great ideas, Penelope: your wisdom is showing! Good point—why not just table it for now. Maybe not forever if it’s something that is going to keep coming up, but maybe until I can get myself into a little less defensive state. “I’m a little too flustered to really gather my thoughts on this right now. Let me take a few minutes to think about this and then can we talk in a few minutes?” That sounds much more polite than a lot of other things that could come out of my mouth at such moments. And then I can evaluate if it’s a conversation that really EVER needs to happen. If not, why not just talk about something pleasant instead? I hope you’ll come back and comment often!

  4. Felixs CruzOctober 15, 2011 at 11:40 am

    People project verbally what they have in their heart/mind. Helping them to clean their heart/mind and helping them to use and be aware of key words to avoid conflict is a very smart combination. You are a genius Dr. Bean.
    Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    Felix Cruz, MFT

    • Michael Bean MS, LMFTOctober 15, 2011 at 5:47 pm

      I am certainly no genius, but coming from a clinician as skilled as you, your comments are indeed a great compliment, Felix. Keep up the great work!

  5. Joshua MMay 16, 2012 at 7:54 am

    But what if it things have gotten to the point that the other person doesnt want to talk to you because of the things you have said, i truly love my girlfriend with all my heart, but i have issues in the past an i get defensive and say things i shouldnt, im so lost right now and have no idea how to fix things….

    • Michael Bean MS, LMFTMay 19, 2012 at 11:50 am

      Joshua,
      When the one you love distances from you and won’t talk, it is a truly helpless feeling. The connected part of you doesn’t want to acknowledge the disconnection the other person wants, and it feels, sometimes for a long time, like you are underwater and can’t reach the surface. Sometimes when we’re feeling desperate, we do things that don’t make much sense, but that can cause harm, so be careful that you don’t do damage to yourself, your girlfriend, or the potential future relationship (assuming there is still a chance). Make sure you talk with people who won’t just take your side and try to tell you how terrible she is and how great you are, but are willing to see how hurtful it is without having to make anyone the “bad guy.” And hang in there–time really does heal.

    • MyleJuly 13, 2012 at 9:22 am

      When our needs are not fufillled at home, we seek to fufilll them elsewhere. This is common in relationships, and for men it is very common to fufilll these needs through work, and sometimes through others, such as in your situation. There are 3 levels of relationship: 1. Selfish Love we seek to meet our own needs in a relationship, 2. Conditional Love I’ll meet your needs if you meet mine, 3. Unconditional Love You’re partner’s happiness is your happiness, thus you do things to make her happy regardless of what you get in return. For lasting fufilllment, both parties need to be on level 3, but you can work to align with one another’s needs until the shift is made.Many times we point the finger that our partner is the problem. Though there may be some truth to it, ultimately we’re responsible for our own thoughts, actions, and beliefs. When you change, the world around you changes. My advice to you:1. Do you really want some other man raising your child? If you leave, what will this do ot your self-esteem?- Right now it sounds like you’re looking for some stability from your partner. I don’t know the details of her or your behaviors, other than you’re trying to escape a situation you feel you have little to no control over.- You’re also looking for some recognition which she’s probably not giving you. This other woman you’re seeing provides both the certainty that she likes you (though if you haven’t been seeing her for very long, this is just the normal rush of emotions when we see someone new) and she probably expresses her appreciation for you.2. Sit down with your current wife, like was suggested, and find out where you both are in the 3 levels of relationship.- What is it going to take to move to level 3?- Who will you have to become to make this happen? What would you have to focus on to feel that you at least have the power to give unconditionally, and ultimately create this breakthrough that your son can have some great parent’s to model after.3. It takes 2 to tango. You’re wife’s needs are just as unfufillled as yours, and right now, you’re not helping her. Her issues may be coming from past experiences, and if she’s pushing you away, she’s testing you to step up, stand firm, and be her man. Many women have been severely hurt in the past, and thus develop trust issues. So instead of getting hurt again, they try to push us away. However, in woman talk, this does not mean they want you to leave! Women’s language can seem as foreign as bird’s chirping, but these are the opportunities to show that we care, and Love them unconditionally. She throws out cheap shots to get a reaction, and even twist the knife in unhealed wounds but she’s really just testing you! When we prove that we are worthy (which begins with YOU first of all!), then their trust builds even more. Trust is not built during the easy times, but during the tough times when we can stand grounded!I hope this helps. Let me know how it works out for you!Purpose. Passion. Power.Howard

  6. Feifei ZhangMay 19, 2012 at 11:04 am

    I thought he is the one ruining our relationship and making me unhappy, after read this article, I suddently realized that I am the one. I am the one yelling, complaining, and blaming, about the things I think he did wrong or he didn’t do as I expected. I told him :”We need to talk”, I thought things could get better, but it’s opposite, the conflicts between us occurred more frequently, because he doesn’t want to talk to me. Everytime when I want to talk to him, he just avoid or ignore, that makes me more angry and upset.

    I love him so much, and I know he still loves me. We used be a very happy couple, until I got pregnant. After I got pregnant, I think he needs take more responsibilities, but he didn’t do as what I expected. And now our baby was born, things are not getting better. The more expectation I have on him, the more disappointed I am, then the more conflicts, I yelled more, I became more easily to get angry. He still, keep quiet when I talk. One day a week ago, he cried, and told me : I am tired, tired of everything. I think he is tired of me, so I got angry again..I asked him to talk to me, he said “not right now”….

    I am desperately needing your help!!!! I love him. I want my happiness with him back. We have such an adorable baby girl, I don’t need anything else, him and her is my everything. I want us to be happy!!!

    • Michael Bean MS, LMFTMay 19, 2012 at 11:40 am

      Feifei,
      It’s good that you have seen that it is not all him. It is hard to see what we do that contributes to the problem and especially when we are unhappy in a relationship, it is very easy to think it is all our partner’s doing. I think you are starting to see that your anger and negativity are at least part of the problem. These are often very old habits of reacting to loved ones that are difficult, but not impossible, to turn around. Don’t give up,and don’t hesitate to get some help if you need to!
      –Michael

  7. Michael Bean MS, LMFTMay 19, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    A happy spouse recently said, “I started being happily married when I made two commitments—one to my marriage and the other to… Read more at http://www.facebook.com/MarriageFamilyCenter

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