5 Times to Avoid Saying the Word "Should" to Your Partner, According to Therapists
You can share your feelings in a more productive way.
If you've spent any time in couples therapy—or even in individual therapy—you likely know that it can be best to avoid saying the word "should." Especially when talking to your partner, using the word sets an expectation that can trigger defensiveness, disappointment, and confusion.
Many experts suggest rephrasing "should" phrases as "I" phrases. So, you could swap "you should have fed the cat this morning" with "I'm feeling overwhelmed by my morning routine and would appreciate your help with some chores." However, there are some instances where "should" phrases are more damaging than others. Ahead, therapists break them down for us and describe how to communicate more clearly.
When you're feeling neglected.
If you're feeling uncared for by your partner, you might be tempted to tell them something along the lines of "you should be more attentive to my needs." However, while it's sure to get their attention, this phrase raises an issue without communicating something specific for the recipient to change, explains Frank Thewes, licensed clinical social worker and owner of Path Forward Therapy.
"A safer way to communicate something like this might be to validate a specific need you want more of, like 'I love it when we cuddle and watch a show after dinner,'" says Thewes. "This indicates a specific need in a validating way that isn't adversarial." Plus, it's more likely to result in the behavior you'd like to see.
When you're feeling misunderstood.
When your partner says or does something upsetting, many people say, "you should know how I feel." Kara Nassour, LPC, NCC, of Shaded Bough Counseling, notes that sometimes people say it aloud, while other times it's an unspoken assumption.
"It's damaging because even the most perceptive partner can't know your emotions as well as you do, and if you expect them to read your mind, they will make mistakes," says Nassour. "Instead, give your partner the benefit of the doubt and put your feelings into words for them, so they can better understand you." Again, it's all about being specific.
When you want to have sex more often.
Your sex life should be handled delicately and throwing around phrases like "you should want to have sex more often" can do permanent damage. Unfortunately, Leigh Norén, sex and relationships therapist and social worker, says it's common.
"Couples with mismatched libidos often end up having conversations where blame is passed on to the other," says Norén. "This is damaging because it causes your partner to feel like there's something wrong with them." That can hinder trust and emotional connection and can further lower their sex drive.
Instead, if you want to have more sex, have a candid conversation. "Say something like, 'hey, I've noticed you haven't wanted to have sex lately, and I was wondering if we can have a chat about it? I miss you and want to talk about how we can get closer again,'" Norén advises. "This kind of conversation starter is less likely to cause your partner to go into defensive mode—and more likely to start an empathetic conversation—the kind that might actually lead you to both want to get closer and be intimate again."
When you feel insecure about money.
You'll probably also want to pass on "should" phrases about money, such as "you should find a job that pays more." According to Thewes, it's a "soft ultimatum" and touches on one of the most common causes of relationship conflict.
"The recipient of this 'should phrase' will probably become defensive or hurt, causing damage to the relationship," says Thewes. "A less critical and confrontational example of how to approach this subject would be, 'I'm feeling stressed about money. Are there ways you and I can brainstorm to increase our income and improve our financial security?'" By using an "I" phrase, you'll enter the conversation in a more neutral way.
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When you feel let down.
You're most likely to use a "should" phrase when you're feeling let down in some way. Often, these sound like "you should have done X" or "you shouldn't have done Y." In many cases, these phrases are counterproductive, so the next time you sense yourself wanting to toss out a "should" phrase, see if there's a way you can rephrase it.
"For example, saying 'you should have called me back' can come across as accusatory and imply that the other person did something wrong," says Barbara Santini, a psychologist at Peaches and Screams. "Instead, you could try saying something like, 'I was worried when I didn't hear back from you. Is everything okay?'" The latter approach shows concern and empathy rather than disappointment.