Is Your Marital Communication Shut Down?

One of the hallmarks of a healthy marriage is healthy communication. Occasional disagreements and arguments might occur, but the partners trust each other to share opinions, feelings, desires, and requests. Open, respectful communication is necessary to learn each other’s needs and desires, and to build safety and trust.

In many relationships, however, communication breaks down, and the partners may not even see it coming. Below is a list of 77 statements, collected from hundreds of hours of couple and marital therapy, that effectively “shut down” marital communication, resulting in escalating fights, hurt feelings, and destroyed trust. Take a moment, read through the list, and count for yourself …

How many of the items on the list have you said to your spouse or significant other?

While reading, ask yourself: What do all of these statements have in common? The answer is at the end of the list.

  1. You always …
  2. You never …
  3. You should … (do XYZ)
  4. You’re the one who …
  5. I thought you said … (which is why I cannot trust anything you say)
  6. Why do I always have to be the one who …
  7. Why am I the one who always has to change?
  8. You always think you’re right.
  9. Who made you an expert on …?
  10. You always have to have it your way.
  11. You always get to do what you want.
  12. I can’t believe you did that.
  13. You just think you know it all.

14 to 18 are said after one partner apologizes:

  1. You don’t really mean that.
  2. You’re not really sorry.
  3. You’re just saying that.
  4. That’s what you always say.
  5. Uh huh, yeah, right.
  6. Why do you always have to be that way?
  7. There you go again.
  8. Like you really mean it.
  9. You don’t talk to your friends like that.
  10. Do you hear how you sound?
  11. Whatever I say you have to say the opposite.
  12. I think you just like to argue
  13. That’s where you’re wrong.
  14. So I’m just wrong again.
  15. Why can’t you just be honest? / Try being honest for once.
  16. Why do you always have to … (e.g., be that way; be right)?
  17. Why can’t you just listen for once?
  18. Don’t tell me what to do!
  19. Don’t tell me what I feel / what I should feel!
  20. Don’t tell me what I’m thinking because you don’t know.

34 to 39 are said after one partner asks, What can I do to be helpful?

  1. You should know.
  2. I shouldn’t have to explain it to you.
  3. I don’t want to have to teach you.
  4. It’s not my job to grow you up.
  5. I don’t feel like raising another child.
  6. It’s too late for that; you had your chance.
  7. As I said, it was your fault.
  8. I don’t want to talk about it.
  9. You can never just leave it alone, can you?
  10. Just answer the question.
  11. Why do you always have to turn everything into an argument / a fight?
  12. You’re always picking fights.
  13. I’m not letting you get away with this (again).
  14. I’m going to show you what it feels like / what you did to me.
  15. You don’t know anything about that / what you’re talking about.
  16. You started it.
  17. You’ve got an answer / excuse for everything, don’t you.
  18. Please don’t do it just because I asked you to / I got angry.
  19. Now are you happy?!
  20. That’s not how everyone else is.
  21. It doesn’t work like that.
  22. Whatever (dismissive).
  23. Did you have to say that?
  24. Why do you always have to say that?
  25. You just don’t understand.
  26. You wouldn’t understand.
  27. Look what you did / caused (the kids are crying / you woke up the baby)?
  28. What’s the matter with you?
  29. Why do I always have to be the bad guy?
  30. Would it kill you to say “Thank you”?
  31. Would it kill you to say “I’m sorry”?
  32. You don’t appreciate anything I do for you.
  33. You never listen …
  34. You know what’s wrong with you … ?
  35. So everything I do is wrong.
  36. It’s always about you, isn’t it?
  37. It’s never good enough for you.
  38. Don’t punish me just because you’re mad at someone else.
  39. Don’t punish me just because you’re mad at yourself.
  40. What are you so mad about?
  41. You’re not kind or respectful to me.
  42. It’s always tit-for-tat with you.
  43. You’re so judgmental.
  44. With you, everything is always black or white.

And my four favorite:

  1. Did you forget to take your medication today?
  2. You don’t have to say it; I already know what you’re thinking.
  3. If I knew this about you, I would never have married you!
  4. I’m sorry I ever met you.

What two characteristics do all of these statements have in common?

  • Each item has no content, no topic, no issue. The argument becomes a power struggle, and not about the original disagreement.
  • Each item is used to shut down communication by being:
    1. Oppositional – denying or opposing the other person’s narrative
    2. Defensive – explaining and justifying
    3. Counter-attack – verbally striking back at the other person

The result of each is to escalate an argument, creating a “cyclone”, and blocking movement toward resolution. If you regularly use any of these expressions, challenge yourself to avoid them.

Break the habit. Learn to communicate more effectively.

  1. When you feel an argument starting, regardless of who “started it”, slow down, breathe, and think. Realize that you’re not going to convince your partner of your position during an argument. There is no “winning”. There is being responsive, which builds trust, or not, which hurts trust.
  2. If you find yourself saying one of the items, STOP! and reassure your partner that you did not mean to hurt him/her, then encourage him/her to share and you listen.

NOTE: My apologies to all the marriage therapists who read this: The core of marital communication is not expressing your feelings or using “I” statements; it is “listening”.

  1. Ask yourself what triggered you to say any of the items. If you identify the trigger, you can figure out how to speak using positive words, or just offer help, or just listen.
  2. Ask yourself, What am I feeling? If you are angry, anxious or hurt – especially if you feel unfairly accused or blamed, ignored, abused, or taken advantage of – you are more likely to say unkind things. Realize that unkind words do not resolve the situation. If they make you feel better, that evaporates quickly as you “have to walk on eggshells”.

Focus on TIME. While you are listening, talk to yourself (out loud in your head) that later when you both have calmed down, there is likely to be an opportunity for constructive dialog, especially if you avoided using any statement in the Lexicon. Create a journal to track your progress. Each time you find yourself saying one of the items on the list, or feeling like you want to, write the statement, when you said or thought it, what triggered it, and how you were feeling

Over time, you will learn to communicate more effectively. It is often helpful when trying to modify behaviors to work with a psychologist or therapist.

In our practice, we use CaseKeepers.com which supports messaging, journaling, tags and popup questions to help couples learn to communicate more effectively.

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