How Telling Your Partner What They Should Do Can Cause Issues In Your Relationship

We all strive for a healthy relationship, but what can we do to be more understanding and communicative partners? It starts with working through the 'shoulds' that either we or our partners have imposed on the relationship, and reflecting on whether expectations have translated to demands and advice into judgment.

Sometimes, an argument can turn a topic on its head, making us question whether we're having a valid reaction to a situation or realize just how much we differ from our partners. Of course, we take the golden rule as far as we can — treating others how we would want to be treated. But there are cases where we may not be realistic about what we'd want if we were in our partner's shoes. In turn, we could also crave a different kind of support than they do and unknowingly bulldoze over their feelings with our own projections.

Though having hard and fast rules may seem like a fraught social experiment, reevaluating our behaviors can be a major relationship reset. Ultimately, setting intentions for our relationship can help us understand the power of our words when it comes to the people we love. 

'Shoulds' can be manipulative and controlling

Marriage and Family therapist Oliver Drakeford told TZR that using 'should' as the crux of a message to your partner is an attempt to "'send a solution' to the other person." Often, when our partners are confiding in us about something they're struggling with, they are seeking support over answers. In this case, 'should' can take on a condescending tone, depending on the context. 

Drakeford added, "Sending a solution in conveying a 'should' not only limits any collaborative conversations around possibilities, but it also suggests that one partner knows more, is more in control, or is taking over." When you assert your opinion of the right direction to go, your partner may no longer feel comfortable contributing to the discussion, even though it started with their own concerns. 

Clinical Psychologist Pria Alpern also supports this perspective. "'Should'ing with your partner conveys a categorical imperative and demands that they think, feel, or act in a certain way," she shared. Beyond the word's impact, it's also important to understand why we seem to 'should' each other so instinctually.

'Shoulds' come from our own unmet expectations

Our most rigid expectations are typically those we set for ourselves — we are pretty much always 'shoulding' internally, whether it's about sticking to a bedtime, calling a friend, or making progress at work. Though these goals are not inherently negative, 'should' implies if we don't meet this expectation, we've failed in some way. 

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. wrote for Psychology Today, "If you ask yourself what all these different shouldn'ts have in common, you'll discover that whatever you're criticizing the other person for, you're doing so because their behavior makes you uncomfortable." He argues that realizing we are different from our partner may shake our own sense of self, and therefore cause us to feel threatened. He concluded, "To assert the legitimacy of our own (discordant) being, we're irresistibly driven to invalidate or find fault with them."

Though empathetic advice based on experience can be helpful, 'shoulds' often come from a place of criticism, as if the recipient has already missed a step along the way. And body language may also play a larger role in our 'shoulds' than we may be accounting for.

Our bodies and voices also influence 'shoulds'

Though some cues like eye contact or reassuring touch may not come naturally to us, physical cues that you're uncomfortable, angry, or otherwise upset can have a detrimental impact on the trajectory of a conversation. Closed-off body language, such as crossed arms, turning away from our partner, or using a frustrated tone of voice can ensure that the emotional stakes will be elevated for both parties. As Pria Alpern told TZR, "It's important to also be mindful of how you communicate through nonverbal cues, like body language, eye contact, and tone of voice."

Open body language will demonstrate that you are looking to support your partner while they are being vulnerable with you and that you haven't already made a judgment about them. Alpern shared, "These factors contribute to the meaning that is derived from spoken words. A word or phrase that seems neutral can quickly become provocative, depending on these nonverbal cues." When our bodies go on the offense or our tones communicate our frustration, our partner's body may go on the defense.

'Should' can put us in defense mode

Since 'should' statements directed at our partners typically come from a judgmental or otherwise demanding place within us, our partners may feel like they have to defend their choices or escalate the argument by firing back with a few targeted 'should' remarks to similarly wound their partner.

It's also important to note that phrases like "you should relax" can minimize our partner's feelings and increase irritation, according to research. UCLA Ph.D. candidate Razia Sahi told The New York Times that these phrases may convey that your partner's emotions "might be inappropriate, or that their emotion might be more intense than the situation calls for." 

Couples therapist Dr. Lauren Cook told Pure Wow that thinking things through before telling our partners what emotional reactions they 'should' be experiencing can make a world of difference. "Taking the time to be mindful, catch your toxic thoughts, and dispute or change them will take you and your partner to a much better place in your relationship."  Using less polarizing language can also help neutralize a conflict, giving us a better chance for a positive resolution.

Our word choice is more powerful than we think

Subbing in 'would like' for 'should' is an excellent start to convey our hopes or expectations for our partner's behavior, Brooke Sprowl, the owner of My LA Therapy practice, told TZR. Just like "I feel..." statements, "I would like it if you..." can bring up a behavior without implying that failure is already on the table. 'Would like' comes off more as an invitation, relaying your feelings while pointing toward a desired action or change.

Dr. Sprowl also added, "When we can talk about our observations, feelings, needs, and requests, people are more likely to be receptive and respond positively to our needs. This creates a more productive dialogue and safer space." So, for example, instead of saying to your partner, "You should've asked me how my day was," you can say, "In order to feel cared for, I need a check-in when I come home from work."

There are also more words to stay away from than 'should.' Heather Z. Lyons, Ph.D., a psychologist and couples counselor, told Bustle, "When we say 'always' or 'never' to our partner, we usually elevate a complaint to a criticism of who our partner is as a person." Keeping away from generalizations about our partners can help us convey our needs kindly and effectively. 

Self-love can be the antitode to 'should'

Our relationship with ourselves is a powerful indicator of how we will interact with others, and unless we rewrite destructive internal patterns, we are sure to project and repeat them. Still, when our partners are in distress, we may feel the impulse to throw a helpful 'should' out there. But Dr. Paul DePompo, a clinical psychologist, told Bustle, "Check with your partner before giving strong advice." This is a good rule of thumb to avoid providing unwanted guidance without validating our partner's feelings since no one should be 'shoulded' unless they've given the okay.

One study showed that if a partner doles out action-oriented responses to those asking for our support, they are more likely to prefer solutions over validation themselves. But even though a 2022 study showed just how much variability there can be in our preferred emotional regulation methods, validating others' experiences was still the most comforting overall. 

As Razia Sahi told The New York Times, "When people hear you and they say they understand you, you feel trusted, you feel cared for, you feel connected." The less we trust ourselves to live up to our expectations, or 'shoulds,' the less trust we may trust our partners to meet them. And, naturally, the more compassion we hold for ourselves, the more we will be able to direct toward our partners.