Remarks to avoid if you wish to avoid hurting your partner’s feelings
These three remarks—whether delivered with good intentions or not—are virtually guaranteed to antagonize your partner. The likely reaction to such ill-chosen expressions will range from the silent treatment to an explosion of frustration over your apparent lack of empathy and understanding.
Why are these all-too-common (and generally innocent) vocalizations so likely to feel insulting? (As it happens, men tend to be guilty of such utterances more often than women.) As I discuss them below, I think you’ll recognize how the receiver (perhaps yourself) is apt to take each of them as critical, unsympathetic, and invalidating—if not downright dismissive. I’ll explain why this is so; suggest what probably impelled you or your partner to say them in the first place; and offer alternative responses that would help settle, rather than inflame, a tense situation.
1. “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
All “shoulds” are judgmental. Invariably, in using such a phrase, you put your partner on the defensive, implicitly attacking them for reacting the way they have, and clearly implying that their feelings are wrong, or at least unjustified. But it can hardly be overemphasized that, in the moment, none of us can help feeling the way we do, your partner included. Based on your past history as a couple, and how your partner interprets your remark, their distress will feel absolutely real, logical, and reasonable to them. So then to tell them not to feel that way may be like waving a red cape at a bull—leaving them offended almost to the point of feeling taunted or mocked.
And no, you may not have had any such intention. Still, your partner’s emotional response is altogether valid. And it deserves—it needs to be—empathized with, before it gets questioned. So if you’re alarmed by your partner’s reaction because it doesn’t square with what—consciously, at least—you meant to communicate, what’s required is that you ask them specifically just what they heard you say. And to do so not judgmentally, but in a way that conveys a compassionate desire to better understand and appreciate what prompted their upset.
In such delicate situations any criticism—on either of your parts—can be hazardous to the relationship. So carefully endeavor to avoid such evaluative speech. Your partner’s expression, whether of anger, sadness, anxiety, embarrassment, or dismay, may have made you feel uncomfortable—perhaps leading you to imagine yourself as inadequate, obtuse, rebuffed, or rejected. Consequently, and defensively, you may have felt compelled to try to talk them out of their feelings—which, frankly, is rarely a good thing to do withanybody, at least not right away.
2. “You’re too sensitive.”
This insensitive retort also connotes a demand: “Don’t be so sensitive.” Put somewhat differently, embedded in this remark is another critical “should.” But as a matter of fact, we’re all just as sensitive as we are. Given our particular biological blueprint, and the sum total of our past experiences, our present sensitivity has to be what it is. So it’s really foul play for you to disparage your partner for reacting as strongly as they did to your (perceived) provocation. When someone’s harshly judged for their upset, it can feel like an assault on their very identity.
Additionally, for you to declare your partner “too sensitive” is to tell them their feelings are mistaken. And depending on the context—and the presumed authority in your tone—those words might push your partner to feel weak or defective for having reacted in such a manner. So not only is the statement plainly cold and unsympathetic, it also disconfirms or delegitimizes their reality—as though where they’re coming from is completely unwarranted.
Consider, again, that you may be negatively reacting to your partner’s hurt feelings because, even though you may not be consciously aware of it, their expression of sensitivity is making you feel guilty. If you experience their reaction as critical and (however obliquely) their display of distress an attack, you may feel driven to justify yourself.
What’s necessary in such situations is that you grasp your partner’s emotional experience from their (not your) point of view. I regularly tell the people I work with that in dealing with such frustrating situations the first thing to do is seek to compassionately understand a partner’s reality—and if they can’t figure this out on their own, to simply ask what caused the partner to become so upset, in a tone that clearly indicates caring and concern, rather than criticism.
3. “Don’t cry.”
Many, if not most, of us react adversely when a partner begins to cry. We can show awkwardness, embarrassment, annoyance, or even anger when they are so overwhelmed with distressful feelings that their tears begin to flow.
[Consider here that, one, in our culture men learn that it’s important to subdue (or more accurately, suppress) the expression of tender, vulnerable, more “female,” feelings, and, two, genetically speaking—and partly because men generally have higher testosteronelevels than women—men simply don’t feel their feelings as intensely as do their mates. So not only is a woman’s partner likely to feel (even if secretly) that he’s failed she’s so troubled by his words or deeds that she can’t help but weep, but he also typically feels he must have done something really terrible to lead her to that point.]
As with the other unwittingly offensive responses, by reacting to crying by telling a partner to stop, you’re essentially sending the message, whether in a critical or compassionate tone, that she (or he) shouldn’t feel this way—certainly not with this much intensity. And by doing so, you’re invalidating your partner, even if unintentionally. Obviously, for your partner to experience such disapproval does nothing to help the two of you get back in synchrony. If your partner was crying in the first place because they felt belittled, misunderstood, or not sufficiently cared about, then reacting to those feelings bydisconfirming them will only worsen the friction between you.
So here, too, an alternative response is called for, one that requires you to emotionallyidentify with your partner’s hurt feelings. If the two of you are to get beyond your differences or misunderstandings, your partner will probably need to clarify to you how what you said made them feel bad. (You’re likely feeling just as vulnerable as your partner in this scenario, so hopefully they can articulate their feelings in a way that doesn’t makeyou feel put down, which would also extend the conflict.)
- If you’re on the receiving end of these comments, I hope you’ll share these thoughts—tactfully—with your partner. Your goal—a crucial one in all relationships—isn’t to degrade or denigrate your partner but to get them to be more sensitive and responsive to your feelings (and how to avoid unknowingly slipping into the habit of triggering them).
- And if you’re the one who has said these things, take heed: If you’re able to avoid the counter-productive reactions I’ve described, then going forward you can be instrumental in co-creating a much safer, more secure and trusting, relationship.
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[Leon F. Sletzer]
Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., holds doctorates in both English and Psychology. Formerly an English professor at Queens College (CUNY) and Cleveland State University, he now lives in Del Mar, California, where he has maintained a general private practice since 1986. With clinical specialties in anger, trauma resolution (EMDR), couples conflict, compulsive/addictive behaviors, and depression, he has also taught some 200 adult education workshops on these subjects. In addition, he has served as consultant to both corporations and publishers. The author of The Vision of Melville and Conrad, he has also written numerous articles in the fields of literature and psychology. He is probably best known for his professional guide book Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy, which describes a wide array of seemingly illogical therapeutic interventions. These powerful techniques can help therapists effectively resolve difficult individual and marital/family problems when more straightforward methods have proved unsuccessful. An active blogger for Psychology Today, as of 1/1/15 his more than 250 posts--on a broad variety of psychological topics--have received over 8 million views.