You already know that communication is everything when it comes to a fulfilling and long-lasting partnership. And you also know that screaming at your S.O. to just put the damn dishes away before you break one over their head is probably not the quickest way to happily ever after. But what about the smaller stuff, i.e., the daily back-and-forth where you can choose to use certain words that strengthen your bond...or ones that slowly chip away at it? We tapped couples therapist Dr. Lauren Cook about the words she loves to hear—and the ones she wishes we would stop using.
One important note on the why-can’t-you-just-put-the-dishes-away conundrum before we get to it: Fighting isn’t necessarily a bad thing, says Dr Cook. In fact, it can be incredibly productive. “What's worse is when couples stop fighting altogether if they have a disagreement because it can be an indicator of apathy. Once a couple reaches a state of apathy, it can be harder to revive as this can be a sign that one or both partners does not care as much about the health of the relationship.” Instead, it’s about fighting in a healthy way, which you can do by using (or staying clear of) the words below.
Two Words Couples Should Embrace
Can and Would
“‘Can’ and ‘would’ are both important words to bring into your relationship,” says Dr. Cook. Why? “Because when you ask your partner a question, it shows a level of intentionality and care rather than assumption.” For example, you could ask your partner, would you like me to make you some dinner? Or can we afford this with our budget goals in mind? These words show thoughtfulness towards your relationship and your partner.
“While some may scoff at seemingly asking for permission, let's be clear: Integrating questions in your relationship does not mean that you are parentifying one another or that you ultimately can't make your own decision,” Dr. Cook explains. “Instead, these questions simply create more transparency and openness in your dynamic so that there is a true element of teamwork.”
So, the next time your spouse is slacking on household chores, try asking them: Can you help me load the dishwasher or Would you mind doing the dishes tonight? Kindness and collaboration, FTW.
Two Words Couples Should Avoid
“I see many couples fall into the trap of the ‘shoulds,’ says Dr. Cook. “This comes from their own internal judgment while also inserting perceived judgments or comparisons to other couples or society at large.” Think: We should be having kids by now or you should be trying harder.
By using the word ‘should,’ it immediately creates an unequal dynamic—both internally and externally. “For example, when one partner is telling the other what they ‘should’ be doing, they're putting themselves in a one-upmanship role while sending a message to their partner that they are inferior.” Or if a couple says that they ‘should’ have a bigger house, they’re telling themselves that they are lesser than. It all boils down to the same issue: The word ‘should’ doesn't instill confidence in a relationship.
“This year has brought a lot of bitterness,” Dr. Cook tells us. And when we feel angry (which let’s face it, we’ve definitely been feeling these last couple of months), we tend to use strong language and curse more. “This can mean that we use the word ‘hate’ in much of our speech without even realizing it.” And while screaming “I hate you!” at your partner is an obvious example of trouble in the relationship, it’s the more benign examples that we need to be aware of (like “I hate this food” or “I hate this couch”). “Speaking with such angst can unintentionally bring a hostility into your relationship that doesn't make much room for lightness,” cautions Dr. Cook. “While you want to allow yourself to express frustration, disappointment and anger, challenge yourself to be mindful of the caustic words you use as this can make your relationship a pool of negativity and complaints.” Duly noted.