“Maybe you should try Rogaine,” my friend Anne cheerfully suggested to Mel, her husband of 33 years.
Mel turned around and snapped, “Are you insinuating that I’m getting bald?”
I watched Anne face-palm. “Mel, you’re the one who's always complaining about losing your hair. I wouldn’t care if you pulled a Yul Brynner. I think you’re handsome and sexy even if your hair is thinning.”
Mel smiled weakly. Then he chortled so hard at the idea of looking like Yul Brynner that he spit out beer.
All was well with my friends.
But this exchange reminded me that even happily married couples can get into verbal spats. Yet even if in the middle of a fight, there are certain questions we should not ask and specific words we ought never use.
Relationship expert Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle and a columnist for AARP, cautions that innocent utterances can be misinterpreted — and if you unwittingly touch a nerve, you can open a Pandora’s box of hurt.
These nine unintentional common utterances can do a world of damage in a relationship. So think before you speak.
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Things Not to Say to Your Dearly Beloved
1. “Should,” as in “You should do this … .” “Hearing the word ‘should’ feels like someone is pressing a thumb into your chest,” Schwartz says. When you tell your partner that he should be (or not be) doing something, you come across like an angry parent or boss waiting to dish out punishment. Your partner feels picked on, and rightfully so. Result: Whatever helpfulness your advice might have delivered is now lost and gone forever. A better approach is asking if your partner is open to a suggestion.
2. “You used to be so hot.” We age, we sag, we widen; get over it. But when you point it out with denigrating language, Schwartz warns, “you’re showing contempt and being hurtful.” Addressing appearance issues is difficult. We need to walk that fine line between assuring our partners that we still love them and letting them know that we might be just a smidge more turned on if they took just a smidge more pride in their looks.
3. “You really don’t remember that?” True? Probably — but more to the point, it’s upsetting. “As we get older, we forget stuff,” Schwartz says. No one wants her diminishing capacities given a shout-out. Some couples make light of it in a good-humored, teasing way, but that’s as rough as it should ever get. (Of course, if you suspect a serious problem, you’ll want to find a gentle, loving way to bring it up.)
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4. “Are you really going out in that?” When you put it that way, you’re giving a pretty harsh reminder that the self-image in your partner’s mind’s eye doesn’t necessarily jibe with what others see. If it’s a matter of taste — e.g., he loves Hawaiian shirts, you can’t abide them — Schwartz says to try to live with it. But if the outfit is unflattering (or worse), Schwartz recommends saying something like, “Honey, I love the way you look in that baby blue shirt and your khakis. Would you wear them for me?”
5. “What did you do to your hair?” If you like the 'do, come out and say so directly. If you’re trying to be diplomatic (that is, not saying “OMG, your hair looks horrible”), this is where the proverbial little white lie comes in handy. If you’re on the receiving end of this kind of backhanded compliment (or veiled insult), do as Schwartz suggests and “diffuse it by saying, ‘Well, I like it, and my stylist loves it, so I hope you can get used to it.’”
6. “Have you considered Spanx?” “We’re all a little tender about way we look,” Schwartz says. But while it’s one thing for us to look in the mirror and think, “Maybe I should do something about these love handles,” it’s quite another to suggest Spanx to your partner. Remember: No underclothing is going to turn a 50+ body into a Baywatch babe or stud. A nice suggestion, and one that doesn't put undue pressure on your partner, is to suggest getting a joint membership at the local gym.
7. “Oh, by the way, I just bought a $5,000 rug.” If you’re in the enviable position to drop this kind of dough without consulting your partner, then ignore the rest of this paragraph. But if you and your spouse have agreed to make major financial decisions together, then a statement like this can threaten the whole concept of marriage as “contract” founded upon mutual decisions, Schwartz explains. So don’t be shocked if your mate is upset.
The problem here is not only in the words, but in the action that spurred them. “To spend a lot of money and then treat it as a trifle by mentioning it in an offhand way — that’s acting out and may signal a deeper problem,” Schwartz warns.
8. “You’re just like your mother (or father).” Generally parental comparisons — at least in this context — are meant to be negative, and we know it. “There’s a kind of hopelessness surrounding statements like these; you’re saying ‘your genetic coding’ is showing, and, really, what can someone do about that?” Schwartz points out. If you don’t like your in-laws, it’s likely your partner already knows. “It’s an unnecessary zinger,” Schwartz says, “so don’t even pretend it’s ‘constructive criticism.’”
9. “It might be time for a little blue pill.” “As men get older, they may well need Viagra,” Schwartz says. “Yet many either don’t realize their sexual performance has slipped or are willing to compromise their sex life instead of addressing the issue.” If you think your partner could benefit from a performance-enhancing medication, be very careful how you suggest it. You are treading on very sensitive ground here, so don’t make him feel unmanned or unwanted. “The last thing you want to do is put him on the defensive,” Schwartz says. “That’s not going to lead to behavior that can strengthen your marriage.” So maybe the next time you're together and a commercial for an ED drug comes on, casually mention that you've heard great things about them.
But do say: “Thank you. I love you. I appreciate you — often.” As Schwartz reminds us: “We all need reassurance and appreciation. We need to know we’re loved, especially by the people that we love. These are words that we can never say too much in a relationship, and when we have by chance, or even in a moment of anger, said something hurtful, these are the words to which we need to return.”
With all this in mind, I think I’ll pop into the living room where my husband is likely to be snoozing in front of some sporting event. But instead of saying, “How can you lie around on your butt for hours?” I’ll sit down next to him, wait for him to wake up and tell him how comforting it is to know he’s in the next room while I’m working.