Think about the last time someone told you what you should do. I suspect that didn’t result in a productive conversation. If you find yourself telling your partner that they shouldn’t do this or if your partner tells you that you should be doing that, you are damaging your relationship in ways that are hard to see.
Here are some common “should statements” I’ve heard from my clients:
1. “You should let me go out with my friends more often without freaking out about it.”
2. “You should do more around the house.”
3. “You shouldn’t get so angry and threaten to break up with me all the time.”
We trigger our partners when we tell them what they “should” do
In an ideal world, our partners would hear our should statement differently. They would understand that we are experiencing insecurity or discomfort and what we mean is that we WISHED they’d done this or that. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. So, here are some tips for how to communicate more effectively without triggering your partner’s defense mechanisms.
Be specific and upfront about your needs
Instead of telling your partner what they should be doing, let them know where you need help. For example, “I wish you would do more around the house, such as loading the dishwasher and taking out the trash. It would be a huge help and mean a lot if you pitched in with those chores. What do you think?”
Asking for help rather than making a demand will keep your partner from getting defensive. Asking for their opinion sets you up for the next tip.
Be curious by asking for their point of view
Remain open and remember that we all need to feel heard and understood. No one responds well to coercion, especially from our loved ones. You must balance respecting your partner’s point of view without sacrificing your needs and wishes.
For example, you might say, “I wish we didn’t have these awful arguments where we get so upset that our relationship feels in jeopardy. I’m constantly walking on eggshells. Help me understand how you feel in these moments.”
If you can give your partner the benefit of the doubt and tell yourself that they likely have a legitimate point, your response will be productive. When you remain calm and avoid getting defensive, you allow yourself to be open-minded. From this place, you can come to an agreement that works for both of you.
Stay on topic and be honest
What many people do is create a new problem on top of the original problem. This new problem is the emotional distress, fear, and anger resulting from being out of sync. These painful emotions make it impossible to focus on the root cause of the issue. Soon we find ourselves arguing about things we don’t really care about. It’s easy to get into a cycle of fighting simply to prove a point or win the argument. But that doesn’t help anyone.
Stop communicating to feel validated, and start being honest and open because the actual satisfaction after a fight comes from the bond that forms when both of you feel heard.
Stop making demands and start making requests
The best you can do in your relationship is to ask for what you need rather than make demands. You can let others know how important things are to you without telling them what they should or shouldn’t do. When you put yourself on a higher moral plane than your loved one, you are asking for an argument.
If you send the should statement, try to revise your communication to include what you would like to see happen while also keeping your partner’s wishes in mind. There is most likely a middle ground if you avoid the added emotional pain from demanding that things go your way.
John Gottman, a world-renowned couples therapist, and researcher says,
“It’s not so much what happens during a fight that is such a big deal, it’s about whether we can come back later and talk about what happened more effectively.”
Admitting you are wrong is hard for many people. Maybe we don’t help out around the house enough, or perhaps we do go out with our friends too much. That can be extremely painful to admit. It’s not about who’s right or wrong. It’s about taking responsibility for our actions and creating balance in the relationship.
In Nonviolent Communication, we talk about hearing the pain underneath others’ blame. A “should statement” casts blame, and that’s why it’s provocative. But underneath the judgment, your partner feels some distress and doesn’t believe you will hear their concerns if they make themselves vulnerable by confiding their feelings to you. Try to help them make their point by listening and staying respectful.
But you’re telling me I should do something?
At this moment, you may not care to follow any of this advice. I understand that because I’m telling you what you SHOULD not do, you probably don’t like that. You might think that I’m telling you that I am right and you are wrong.
It’s not my goal to be correct. I’m trying to help you have happier relationships. I want you to be aware of the painful consequences of making “should statements” to your partner.
In your next argument, you might still throw that “should statement” out there and refuse to modify it. Or if you hear a should come from someone you care about, you may get angry and kick off a huge argument. It can feel very satisfying to do so. I know from personal experience.
However, when you have calmed down, go back and try again. Reassure your partner that their needs are important to you, and you want to work with them so that both of you are happy. It’s not about right or wrong, and it’s not about being perfect. It’s about noticing the damaging patterns in your relationship, working to improve them, and moving forward.