Open Mouth–Insert foot. Why we can’t take back hurtful words.

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Lately I have been working more predominantly with couples, which I am loving. I get to observe the intimate dynamic between two people, and find out what makes their partnership unique. I often begin with the “How did you meet?” question, because it gives me a glimpse into the brighter times of the relationship, and takes some of the pressure off of the, “we had to come to therapy” vibe. I am amazed at how the recollection of happy memories can often be a catalyst for change in the moment. I can almost hear the couples’ thoughts: “We were happy once; we can be happy again.” Nothing makes me happier as their therapist, than the moment hope is achieved.

            Sometimes things are not so lovely, lovey dovey, easy. Boo, more work for me. (Kidding!) The more challenging aspect often has nothing to do with the problem a couple comes in with (she spends too much, he is a slob, someone had an affair). It has everything to do with how the couple is speaking to one another. John and Julie Gottman observed this at their institute, and were able to predict with great accuracy, which couples would stay together, and which would end in divorce–strictly based off of the ratio of positive to negative interactions. I watch that play out on my couch, when I see couples choosing their words vs. vomiting them.

            So often one partner will bring up an example of a horrible threat to leave or a cutting statement such as, “I never should have married you.” The perpetrator of the hurtful words usually comes back with the retort: “I didn’t mean it,” but once the words are out it is too late. How is someone supposed to forget those words were spoken? They have become a scar on the relationship–even when treated it still remains. A constant thread of doubt in the mind of the recipient. Doubt is crippling in many ways, but it is relationship kryptonite.

            Consider the use of words in any relationship, and consider them carefully. The ones spoken in anger may not hold truth, but they cannot be taken back and they will hang in the air forever. 

Photo credit: Paul Reynolds via Flickr

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