(Love)

This One Word Could Ruin A Relationship

Avoid it at all costs.

In a romantic relationship, it’s common (and even natural) to want your partner to behave in a certain way or do certain things. But using the word that epitomizes this sentiment — “should” — can be disastrous. It could be about the dishes, taking a new job, or something you wish they would have said differently. “‘Shoulds’ are in my ‘Top 8 Blocks to Communication’ that I teach clients in relationships,” Oliver Drakeford, licensed marriage and family therapist in West Hollywood, CA, tells TZR in an email. “‘Should’ messages from a partner also ‘send a solution’ to the other person. Sending a solution in conveying a ‘should’ not only limits any collaborative conversations around possibilities, but it also suggests that one partner knows more, is more in control, or is taking over.”

He adds that there is an element of judgment behind a ‘should’ that indirectly compares what one partner would do — or would have done — differently. “It implies there’s a better way of doing things that is superior to another partner and this will, in time, cause distance in the relationship.”

Clinical Psychologist Pria Alpern, Ph.D., agrees. “‘Should’ing with your partner conveys a categorical imperative and demands that they think, feel, or act in a certain way,” she tells TZR in an email. “This rigid, unrealistic expectation sets your partner up to fail. Furthermore, the recipient of the ‘should’ing will often experience it as criticism, which is detrimental to the relationship.” So what is a way to convey a “should” without actually saying it? Below, a few therapists share some ideas.

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How To Reframe ‘Should’ In Your Relationship

Brooke Sprowl, clinical director and owner of My LA Therapy, says that anytime you use “should” toward your partner, it is a manipulative form of control and criticism. “There is guilt and shame built into it, and when you are using guilt and shame to try to affect other people’s behavior, that can be really harmful,” she tells TZR. “It’s not a helpful way to communicate. Your partner will likely get anxious and defensive, and it causes you both to go into defense mode and will start a feedback loop.”

Instead, she suggests using value-related statements based on strategies from the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D. This way, you can use neutral observations instead of evaluation statements that are based on “right” and “wrong.” “When we can talk about our observations, feelings, needs, and requests, people are more likely to be receptive and respond positively to our needs,” Sprowl explains. “This creates a more productive dialogue and safer space.”

And even though the topic at hand may seem trivial — like someone not taking out the garbage — it’s usually about a deeper issue. Maybe the other person is feeling taken for granted or as though they have to do everything. So instead of saying, “You should have taken the garbage out,” you can talk about your observations, feelings, needs, and requests — here’s what happened and what I value; here’s how I feel; here’s what I need; and here’s my request to you (request, not a demand). You can touch on all four of these areas by saying, “I felt disappointed when I noticed the garbage had not been taken out. We agreed we would share the household responsibilities. I really need equal contribution and follow through. Would you be willing to commit to this?”

This way, you’re using positive language that’s concrete and actionable, Sprowl says, and you’re creating safety and trust in the relationship. “When you say something like, ‘I need follow through,’ it’s about your needs — and your needs are not disputable,” she says. “It’s actually really vulnerable to say you need support and it’s a real task to figure out what our needs are sometimes. We are not always aware of them, which can lead to us criticizing others by ‘should’ing them as a passive, or direct, attempt to get our needs met.” Sprowl says to keep in mind the three Cs: being critical, controlling, or coercive. “Unfortunately, [the three Cs are] very dominating in our culture, but they’re all on the spectrum of abuse — we don’t get to tell people how they ‘should’ do something or what they ‘should’ be,” she says.

Specific Examples Of What To Say Instead Of ‘Should’

Drakeford says it is helpful to consider the feeling behind your desire to use a ‘should’ statement and think about expressing that before inviting your partner to ask for your opinion. You can say: “It makes me so sad to see that you’re struggling with this decision... How can I help?” “Should” messages usually come from a loving place — of wanting to help or advise a partner, he says. “So rather than force the help onto them, you could invite them to come to you for this care if they would like to hear it. You could say, ‘I see you’re struggling with that decision, and I’d be happy to share with you what I would do if you think that might help?’”

Alpern agrees about reframing the “should” as a wish or preference to your partner, such as, “I’d prefer that we stay in tonight and watch a movie,”or “I wish that I could FaceTime you tomorrow morning since we won’t be seeing each other this week,” or “I’d like you to ask me how my day was when I get home from work.”

The Importance Of Not ‘Should’ing Yourself Either

It’s just as important not to “should” yourself. “Think of ‘should’ing yourself as the opposite of self-compassion,” says Alpern. “It’s like a form of self-flagellation that breeds shame and resentment toward the self. This, in turn, can increase anxiety, lower self-esteem, and have an overall negative impact on one’s emotional well-being.”

Sprowl echoes Alpern’s sentiment, saying it’s best to perceive the relationship you have with yourself as you would with another person. “If we are critical of ourselves, it damages our self-esteem and self-worth, can drain our energy and make it difficult to trust ourselves, and disconnect us from our intuition,” she says. Instead, she suggests practicing being compassionate and loving toward yourself — without any value judgments like you “should” have done this or “should” have done that. This way, you can learn to self-define your own value system — understand which values are important to you and which are harmful to you. Then you’ll be able to live from a place of being rather than doing. Ask yourself: “Is the person you want to be in line with your values versus the ego and societal approval?” The latter is where all the “should”ing comes from.

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Eliminating ‘Should’ Will Take Practice

When trying to eliminate “should” from your relationship vocabulary, Sprowl says to be patient — it won’t happen overnight. “Just like anything, we have patterns of behavior — and they’re not easy habits to break,” she says. “These patterns have been conditioned in us since childhood.” For example, you may have played tennis your whole life, but your form is incorrect, she explains. A coach can tell you how to correct it, but it requires a great deal of patience, practice, repetition, and discipline to break the old habit. “Any new skill will take a lot of time to develop,” she says.

However, individual or couples therapy can help redirect the power struggles going on in your relationship. Sprowl says that “should”ing situations are likely indicative of you having some anxiety that has not been processed — and you’re externalizing it onto your partner. “It can be helpful to regulate anxiety and get in touch with deeper feelings… and to learn how to communicate in more assertive ways,” she explains. “You can also learn to feel more respected and cared for, as well as how to get your needs met. A fight about dishes may seem trivial, but is emblematic of something much deeper.”

In Relationships, It’s All About Word Choice

Drakeford says that when anxiety runs high in a relationship, it’s very easy to slip to patterns of communication that are unhealthy. “Given that we are still dealing with a pandemic and new threats to our well-being, or changes to our work and living situations, anxiety is undoubtedly high for all of us,” he notes. “This heightened state of tension is — for the most part — going unrecognized, so it’s even more important to be mindful of how we are reacting to our partners. This includes noticing if we are adding to the already high levels of stress with our tone, ‘shoulds,’ or overall word choices.”

Word choice is not the only thing that matters, Alpern says. “It’s important to also be mindful of how you communicate through nonverbal cues, like body language, eye contact, and tone of voice,” she adds. “These factors contribute to the meaning that is derived from spoken words. A word or phrase that seems neutral can quickly become provocative, depending on these nonverbal cues.”

At the end of the day, Andrea Wachter, psychotherapist, author, and Insight Timer teacher says she once heard a memorable quote: “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself.” “And, of course, ‘Don’t ‘should’ on your partner!’ The next time you are tempted to tell them they ‘should’ do something — or they ‘should’ have done something — you can respectfully ask them if it would work for them to do what you are wanting. If it works for them, great. If it doesn’t, hopefully you can respect their needs and limits and see it as a trust- building moment.” This way, she adds, you can trust that they are being honest enough to say no and you can make it safe for them to be honest by responding in a mature and kind manner.