Q. Will you talk about what not to say in a relationship? My significant other annoyed me the other day, so I told him, “You’re annoying me.” He said, “I’m not being annoying.” How ridiculous is that? I know if I’m being annoyed. How can he try to tell me he’s not annoying me? Does he think that will help?

– 17-year-old

Mary Jo’s Response: I enjoyed your question! For years, I’ve been threatening to write a book of Things Not to Say!

Communication in a relationship is key to its survival. I briefly served adults as a relationship counselor. The anger level in most couples was so high, it was obvious communication had failed. Healthy relationships thrive on ongoing, honest interaction.

What you’re describing isn’t poor communication as much as the types of interactions that occur between partners, especially over time. We all know how to push our partner’s buttons! I don’t doubt your boyfriend knew his actions were annoying to you; he probably realized denying it would add to your annoyance. Why do we act like this with people we love?

As a teacher and child development specialist I know children often behave best when away from their homes. Home is typically a safe place. Parents tell me they attend parent-teacher conferences, hear how well behaved their child is at school, and wonder, “Is this the same kid I see at home?” It’s an honor if a child feels safe enough to relax at home. Is a change in behavior at home negative? I think it’s an indication of a child’s need to lower their guard.

The same may be true in close relationships. We often treat those closest to us with the least regard. Would we speak to a co-worker in the same tone we use for a close friend or partner?

I brought this question to our peer educators. Their conversation evolved into other things significant others shouldn’t say. Here are their thoughts on Things Not to Say:

“I’m not being annoying.” The first challenge with this statement is denial. Even if a person feels their behavior isn’t annoying, denying it doesn’t help. Validate a person’s feelings. Responses like, “I don’t want to be annoying. What should I do?” might defuse tension and ease anger.

“What do you want me to say?” If one person asks another to “talk,” the common conception is there’s a problem in the relationship. Such a conversation isn’t fun. However, it’s possible a partner is bored or lonely and just wants to connect. Saying, “What do you want me to say?” can be a red flag for some people. Try simply listening to what’s on your partner’s mind.

“I didn’t do anything wrong.” Denial again. Learning how to “fight nice” is a great relationship skill. No one is perfect; few relationships exist without arguments. If a person is wrong, admitting it goes a long way to reconciliation.

“Things could be worse.” Our peer educators felt this statement applied to many types of relationships – parents, friends, teachers and acquaintances. When someone is upset, they need support, not platitudes and clichés. Sure, things can be worse, but right now, hold space and be there.

“At least…” Saying, “At least you have a girlfriend” to someone during a relationship crisis doesn’t help. Diminishing a person’s problem closes doors and lowers self-worth.

“You should….” Use “I” messages instead of laying blame. Saying, “It would really make me happy if we….” or “I loved the way you….” sets the stage for connection.

Here are some positive ways to avoid communication tension:

  • Avoid bringing up past mistakes. Worrying about the past is a waste of energy; it cannot be changed. Reminders of poor past behavior and regret won’t strengthen a relationship.
  • Try not to drag past trust issues into a new relationship. Many people are hurt when relationships end. Learning to trust again can take time. Be upfront with a new partner.
  • Avoid guilting others. Connection should ideally be free of guilt. Catch yourself before you impose guilt on a partner.
  • Clarify intentions. No one can read another person’s mind. Assuming someone knows your needs can lead to disappointment, tension and anger. This is true for parents as well. Consistent boundaries and standards help young people stay within them.
  • Learn to laugh together. Remember why you’re together. It may sound oversimplified, but perspective helps. If people care about one another, the small stuff shouldn’t become overinflated. Let it go.

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email podmj@healthyteens.com.

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