While words may not be able to cause physical harm, they can damage the spirit and have long-lasting effects. In many cases, the cumulative effects of hurtful words can cause more harm than physical pain. My wife and I have had a fair number of arguments in the time we’ve been married. Sometimes, in our anger and frustration, we throw words at each other that we don’t really mean. And while we soon forget what we were arguing about, the feelings of pain and betrayal caused by the toxic phrases and words tend to stick with us much longer. Sometimes for years.
These words, like a toxin, tend to eat away at the trust and intimacy that are at the core of our relationship:
1. “If you feel that way, maybe we should get a divorce.”
Otherwise known as: “We’re only sticking together for the kids,” or, “I’m just biding my time.”
Several years ago, my wife (then fiancé) and I had the opportunity to visit some friends of mine out of town. While having dinner at this young couple’s home, we witnessed an argument between them.
I don’t remember who, but one of them said these fatal words: “If you feel that way, maybe we should get a divorce.”
I cringed inside because my fiancé and I had already agreed to never use the “D word” to threaten each other because we understood how these words could threaten the sense of trust and security in our marriage.
A few years later, the wife divorced her husband.
Words like these are often used in the heat of an argument, and the person saying it usually doesn’t actually want a divorce. More often, they are trying to express frustration over their inability to resolve a particular conflict. But having an unresolved conflict (or two or three) doesn’t make you incompatible.
Marriage is made up of two individuals who each bring their own values, ideas, and ways of doing things. Many conflicts involving these differences will never be resolved.
Compromise or agreeing to disagree may be the only resolution you can reach on some of these issues. Rather than feeling that these differences and the conflicts they cause make you incompatible, try to understand where your spouse is coming from and why they feel the way they do.
You might try saying something like this: “I’m feeling hurt, angry, or abandoned and I am struggling with wanting to be near you. I love you but I need some space. I’ll come to find you when I cool down.”
2. “I hate you.”
Otherwise known as: “I don’t love you anymore.”
I remember when my wife said this to me during a heated argument. I didn’t believe for a second that she actually meant it, but it still shocked me to the core. She soon apologized and reassured me of her love.
But until she did, I was a complete wreck. I was hurt and angry that she could let those words slip, even in anger.
The good news is that once she apologized and made amends, those feelings were immediately replaced with relief and gratitude.
3. “That’s stupid.”
Otherwise known as: “You’re being irrational.”
My spouse and I don’t always see things the same way. Sometimes, I do something that seems irrational to her but makes complete sense to me. Or she’ll do something that doesn’t make sense to me, but to her, it makes perfect sense.
This is because we each bring different perspectives and values into our relationship. It always works out better when we work to understand each other’s viewpoints rather than rushing to judgment or taking offense.
4. “Of course a man/woman would think that!”
Otherwise known as: “Stick to woman’s business,” or, “This is a man’s job”
Sometimes differences in the way we think do cause conflicts. Other times, there’s an issue that’s been stewing for a long time and it finally boils over. Or one of us has been having a hard day that has nothing to do with each other, but we take it out on each other.
5. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
At times we need a break from an argument to cool down. But when we completely refuse to address an issue in our marriage, it causes resentment and bitterness.
Bad feelings and thoughts can boil around inside for a long time. The longer we allow these thoughts to continue, the more they sink into our subconscious perceptions of each other. This affects all of our future interactions.
Instead, a better way to approach it is this: “I’m not ready to talk about this right now. Let me take some time to cool off and think about it, then we’ll talk.”
6. “You’re just like your mom/dad.”
I’ve never said this to my wife, but I’ve thought it. And it was never while I was in a charitable mood.
It’s much better to address the actual problem, rather than using some vague hint or insult.
7. “Get off my case!”
Otherwise known as: “Stop nagging me.”
If my wife gets on my case about something, it’s because there’s something that needs to be resolved. Telling her to stop nagging me has never been a good move.
Instead, I usually apologize and try to change my behavior. I’ve even asked her to keep reminding me because changing lifelong habits isn’t easy.
8. “Just relax!”
Otherwise known as: “Stop thinking about it.”
When my wife is upset, telling her to relax is less than helpful. If she could, she would have already. She appreciates it when I ask her to tell me about what’s bothering her, and reassure her as best I can. Knowing I support and empathize with her is a much better way to help her relax.
While these 8 toxic phrases can cause a lot of harm to a relationship, there is good news if you’ve already used these. Studies by the Gottman Institute show that healthy couples tend to have 5 positive interactions for every negative interaction.
The antidote to using these phrases is to be intentional about creating positive, uplifting moments between you and your spouse. A sincere apology, a warm hug, affirming words, and doing something fun together can go a long way to restoring friendship and intimacy.