One significant lesson I learned from being married for ten plus years is that you can’t take words back once they’ve been said, or screamed.
Words are tactile. They have the power to seep into everything around you if harsh enough. They can become part of the furniture, they can hang in the air permeating every part of the room with tension and regret.
Sex? You want me to have sex with you after what you just said to me? You must be kidding.
Maya Angelou said,
“Words are things, I’m convinced. I think they get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper, they get in your rugs and your upholstery and your clothes. And, finally, into you.”
I believe Dr. Angelou was correct.
Words hold so much meaning — words harm. Harsh words from a parent or lover or a sibling can stay with you for years.
In marriage, brutal honesty, intense bickering and cold standoffs lead to contempt. And contempt, in a marriage, is one of the hardest things to come back from, it is almost impossible, too much is broken to put back together.
According to Dr. John Gottman of The Gottman Institute, contempt is the single most corrosive behavior in a couple’s relationship and the number one predictor of divorce. Treating others with disrespect, disdain, mockery, name-calling, aggressive humor, and sarcasm are examples of contemptuous behavior. Dr. Gottman says,
“When we communicate with contempt, we are truly mean…hostile humor, name-calling, mimicking, and body language such as eye-rolling and sneering. In whatever form, contempt is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust and superiority, especially moral, ethical, or characterological.”
Meaningful communication is essential
Choosing our words carefully in intimate relationships is part of healthy communication. The people we choose to spend our time with, and sometimes, our lives with, are the most important. Yet, so often we reserve our kindest words for strangers, for the cute barista who makes our daily morning espresso drink, our neighbors, our friend’s children and not our own.
Because we are the most comfortable and “real” with our immediate family, we save our harshest words for the people we think will be around forever. Not a great strategy for closeness or meaningful intimacy. And not a holistic approach to relating with those we claim to love.
Communicate with empathy first
The best communicators are those who listen and seek to understand, which requires empathy; they do not react. Communication, when not based in understanding, does not seek to connect, it causes distance. Communication that connects is not venting your anger and frustration onto your partner when they’ve made a mistake or disappoint you in some way.
“It’s your fault.”
“I hate you sometimes.”
“I blame you.”
“Sometimes, I want to leave you.”
These statements only serve to maximize disconnection and don’t qualify as relating to another person in a meaningful way with understanding, but instead seek to separate and cause harm and minimize the connection along with the person.
Real communication goes something like this: “Hey, this is what my world looks like for me right now. I want to know what your life was like you today.”
If you speak with your partner and listen — without attacking or defending your stance — there is a chance of creating real connection, and therefore, effecting real change.
An evolved communicator makes bids for understanding their partner in times of stress and turmoil that inevitably shows up in a long-term relationship with those you love.
Bids for understanding or empathic murmurings go something like this:
“Tell me more.”
“I hear you.”
“What did that feel like?”
When a disagreement arises, successful couples pursue a connection instead of “winning” or being “right.”
Trying to be “right” in a relationship will only cause disconnection.
Empathy creates connection; judgment creates distance. Choose connection.
Esther Perel, the author of the international bestseller, Mating in Captivity, says the only way you can affect change in someone else’s behavior is to change yourself. How empowering. This idea is liberating and gives one full responsibility for themselves. Taking responsibility for your behavior is the quickest way to freedom.
We only have control over what we do, what we say, what words we allow to flow from our lips.
Jessica is a writer, an online entrepreneur, and a recovering Type A personality. She lives in Los Angeles with her extrovert daughter, two dogs, and two cats.