Part V: Building a Great Marriage

What little words turn out to be provocative, with huge potential for undermining goodwill in a relationship?

The more couples use the words you and not, especially when they add should and shouldn’t, or never or always, the more likely their communication will sound negative, critical, controlling or otherwise off-putting.  “You are not paying attention to…”  “Why don’t you….?”  “You should….”  “You shouldn’t have…” “You always ….”

Complaints, criticism, disparagement, blame–they’re all comments about the partner.  They start with you.

In addition, negative statements like complaints, criticism, put-downs, sarcasm and blame typically convey your displeasure via the word not .  That tiny three letter word puts a damper on positive feelings and invites instead hurt feelings and defensiveness.

Pretty potent little critter, that not word.  And sneaky too, when it hides as n’t as in “You didn’t….” or  “How come you don’t….”

Then, with you and n’t already causing problems, adding fuel to the fire with shoulds and shouldn’ts can almost guarantee a negative response like defensiveness, anger, or blocked ears.

Lastly, add in always and never and you have a sure-fire recipe for a launching an unpleasant interchange.  These over-generalization words almost always invite a defensive response of “That’s not true!  I don’t always ….  Remember that time when …..?”

Here’s  four fundamental rules for keeping dialogue positive:

1)    Talk about your self, sharing your thoughts and feelings. If you can say what’s on your mind, your spouse does not need to guess—and also will be able to be responsive.

2)   Or ask about your partner.  Good questions begin with What or How.  “What do you think about …?”

3)   Refrain from any guesswork about what goes on in your partner’s head.  Telling your partner what you think he or she thinks, feels, or should do is, in the language of my Power of Two book and website (,  is a  “crossover. ” It’s an invasion into your partner’s space.  Crossovers cause unnecessary tension and antagonisms.

4)   Instead of guessing what you think your partner is doing, thinking, or feeling, ask open-ended questions.  “What happened that you were so late tonight?”, “What did you feel when you realized that…”  or “How can you be sure this won’t happen as a regular pattern?”

This basic rule of communication is like the basic rule of driving.  I have to drive always in my lane.  If I cross over the center line and start driving in the other lane, especially on a two-lane road, I’m going to crash into you.  That’s how accidents happen.  Starting sentences with you is like driving in the wrong lane.

What is the difference between the phrase, “I would like to …,” and “I would like you to…”?   The second version crosses the center line, telling the other person what to do.  Crash ahead!

Where is not especially likely to cause trouble?  Notice that “I don’t like…” sneaks the not word in via n’t.  Beware!  Better to say what you would like than to talk about don’t likes.   “I don’t like when you come home late” is far less inviting than “I would like so much to be able to count on your coming home on time.”

In sum, for consistently warm and loving interactions, change your you’s to I’s.  Flip your not’s to what you do think, feel or would like.  And screen out the shoulds/shouldn’ts and the always/nevers from your words before you speak.

© Copyright 2010 by Susan Heitler, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jenna

    October 29th, 2010 at 2:26 PM

    I think that all of this is great, I really do, but I also think that sometimes partners get a little too uptight about these types of things and get wound up over nothing. They allow the small things to become way more provocative than they have to be and that leads to fighting that really is avoidable. One of the best pieces of advice that I evert got (thanks Mom) is that if you would not like to hear it yourself then it is probably best left unsaid.

  • Savannah S

    October 30th, 2010 at 11:38 AM

    When you always phrase comments so that it sounds like you are blaming your partner then it is no wonder that he or she will lose his cool and turn something into what you think is innocent into words that can spark a real fire. You have to know your partner and what gets his ire oing. And if you know that what you are going to say is going to get him started then try to think of a better way to get your point across. Arguing can be effective but not when it is all just about screaming and yelling. It is much better when at the end you can say that you have accomplished something instead of causing more hard feelings.

  • BURT

    October 30th, 2010 at 12:25 PM

    This sounds all too convenient but most of us would react in the negative manner at any given instant,without any prompting.Is there a way to train ourselves to respond the positive way?

  • ricardo

    October 31st, 2010 at 10:06 PM

    Who stops in the middle of a row to think about how they are coming across? I sure don’t and neither does my wife. We fight it out (verbally). I say what I mean and I mean what I say and bless her, so does she. She’ll give as good as she gets. We’re both hot tempered and don’t hold back. It’s worked for us for 14 years because there’s 100% honesty, raw and undiluted.

  • janice

    November 1st, 2010 at 4:46 AM

    If negativity is something that one partner always hears from the other maybe they have just trained themselves to think that everything that is said is negative when in reality that may or may not be true. So what I really think is that this could be a good lesson for both partners in a relationship. Not only do you need to be more aware of the things that you say and the way that you say it, but you also have to be willing to be a better listener to make sure that what you are getting from your partner is actually what he or she is trying to tell you. Communication, especially communication that is effective and meaningful, goes both ways, and that is something important for both partners to remember.

  • Fred

    November 1st, 2010 at 8:08 AM

    its amazing how a little change in grammar can actually have so much difference in what the other person perceives about you.the same thing can be said in so many different ways and the resulting reaction can be so different too!

  • Dr. Heitler

    November 5th, 2010 at 12:54 PM

    I love all of your comments! In my Power of Two program we call these kinds of comments “digestive listening.” That is, you each have been thinking over what you read, chewing on it, swallowing what you liked, and verbalizing your reactions.

    @Jenna and @Savannah point out that in emotionally delicate situations a microsecond of pause to pre-screen or prepare before you say something can result in vastly improved effectiveness. I agree!

    At the same time, @ Bert is right on. The ideal is for these new verbal habits to become automatic. Like all habits, automatic comes from practice.

    @Janice highlights the point that sometimes someone will say we’re being negative when we ourselves thought we were fine. Check out if your sentence hads a tiny buried n’t in it. It’s just amazing how one little NOT, even in its abbreviated N’T form, can tarnish the tone of all you were trying to say.

    Which confirms @Fred’s point. As they say in systems theory, “small perterbations in a system can have huge consequences over time.” The small words YOU and NOT can create negative impacts that a spouse never in the least bit intended or wanted….

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