One Word That Can Kill Your Relationships (& What To Say Instead)

Every relationship has at least one deal breaker — that is, a behavior that rubs a partner the wrong way and could lead to the end of the relationship. For some, it might be an adulterous affair, and for others, it might be emotional abuse or anger issues. On many occasions, it can be a single word. Hard words may break no bones, but they sure do break hearts and relationships. Many times, what you spill out in the heat of the moment might not reflect the true intentions of your heart, but the axe forgets what the tree remembers. 

Is it "shut up" or "you're such a loser"? Well, personal insults are a form of verbal abuse and shouldn't be tolerated, but they're pretty obvious. The one word that can and often does push a situation from manageable to untenable is what many of us consider to be an innocent, well-meaning word: "should." 

Strange, isn't it? "Should" is the most humble modal auxiliary verb in the English language — at least when you compare it to terms like "must" or "could have." A sentence containing "should" doesn't come across as a tall order. It's a polite way of asking your partner to do something. However, "should” is a low-key dealbreaker with negative undertones that many are not aware of. Worse, its subtle nature could lead us to use it indiscriminately in conversations with our partners.

Why you should not say should

A sentence with "should" is one of the most disempowering things you can say to a partner without knowing it. It implies that you have the final say. Language like this conveys that your way is the correct way to do certain things, which can eventually lead to a power struggle in your relationship. 

"'Shoulds' are in my 'Top 8 Blocks to Communication' that I teach clients in relationships," licensed marriage and family therapist Oliver Drakeford tells TZR. "'Should' messages from a partner also 'send a solution' to the other person. 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."  

According to executive coach and career strategist for women Anne Shoemaker, the "should" statement can bring out the inner critic in a person and lead to "feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, frustration, and self-rejection." It places an unreasonable expectation on the person, causing them to feel guilty over what they did and putting them in a negative self-talk cycle. Although it means well, the word "should" can come across as underhandedly critical and disempowering. A person is unlikely to change when they feel disempowered. If you want your partner to change, there are other ways to put it without having to use the word "should."   

What to say instead

According to clinical psychotherapist Dr. Soph, before you use the word "should," ask yourself why you think it's something that should be done. If it is done, will it change your situation for the better? Then, instead of saying "you should," say, "I want" — a value-based statement. In other words, instead of making it sound like you're imposing your opinion on your partner, make a statement about your feelings and your desires instead. 

For instance, instead of saying, "You should be more proactive in your search for a job," say, "We've been struggling to pay our bills. I've been skipping breakfasts for two weeks. I hope you can find a job as soon as possible so I can stop juggling odd jobs to make ends meet." 

At the heart of the "should" statement is one's desire to communicate their needs in a relationship. However, when the word "should" is overused, the recipient will start becoming immune to it. If you really want your needs met, learn to be more direct in communicating what you want. When you start highlighting your needs instead of what you think your partner needs, including naming the words and phrases you don't want in a healthy relationship, they'll have to listen to you.