Say What You Mean … Mean What You Say

One thing that destroys trust in a relationship is when partners say one thing and do another. Or … they say one thing, but really mean something else. It’s so important for both partners to be honest with themselves and with each other. Sometimes, we may not know what we really mean, and maybe our partner can help us figure that out. That’s okay, too. The critical thing is for partners to do their best to be “true to their word” so that they can build a trusting relationship that both of them can count on.

In some relationships, partners use words to test each other. For example, in the heat of an argument, one will say: “That’s it! I’m out of here!” Or the word “divorce” is used repeatedly, most often as a threat to the other spouse or to manipulate the other so that we can have our way. Remember this: We can’t unring the bell!Words can do great damage to a relationship, and once said, it is impossible to take them back, even if we would do anything not to have said them. Testing each other’s love, commitment, patience, etc. rarely works; it usually only builds resentment and destroys trust.

Timing is Everything

The best time to discuss something with your spouse may not be exactly when you want to talk about it … for a variety of reasons. He or she may be tired (or not feeling well or distracted or in the middle of something else or just leaving or coming home, etc.) and not want to or be able to give you their full attention.

Although there are times when something has to be addressed immediately, most often we can be flexible in our timing and take into consideration what may be going on for our partner. Especially when it is likely to be an important and/or lengthy discussion, letting our spouse know that we want or need to talk about something and asking when might be a good time to do this sets a positive tone for the discussion. Together, you may want to set some guidelines (not answering the phone, for example) for the conversation. It is a good idea to plan, when possible, for a time when both of you can be attentive to the other and not be distracted.

Avoid Statements or Actions that Create Defensiveness

There are a variety of ways that we can unintentionally cause our partners to feel and behave defensively. When this happens, the discussion may end abruptly or escalate into an unwanted argument. If this happens repeatedly, it can eventually lead to a breakdown in communication in the couple relationship. There are several ways to avoid this:

• Avoid the use of absolutes: “You never talk to me anymore” “You always get angry with me!” “You’re late, as usual.”
• Avoid laundry lists in which you bring up everything you don’t appreciate about your partner’s behavior in one conversation (or sentence!). Stay focused and sensitive to your partner. You can be assertive without being aggressive.
• Use “I” statements rather than “You” statements. For example, instead of “You make me furious when you don’t call me and let me know you’ll be late coming home!”, you might say “When you don’t call me and let me know you’ll be late, I worry about you … or I get upset …” You can then make a request of your partner, such as: “and I’d like for you to call me when you are going to be late.”
• Avoid sarcasm. Sarcasm is hurtful and it doesn’t help when its effects on our spouse are dismissed or discounted in any way. Statements like: “You’re too sensitive” or “You’re overreacting” are not only not helpful, they cause resentment and defensiveness in our partners.