Language is our sharpest tool.
We can use our words to hurt someone. We can pull out their passion and inspire them. And all too often we can offend someone by something we said and didn’t mean.
In any relationship—whether it’s a co-worker, lover, or roommate—we use our words to communicate a message. Part of growing up is learning how to voice those messages clearer.
The following list is just the beginning of phrases I’m working to learn and unlearn so I can have more peaceful conflicts in the relationships around me.
1. The better “How could you”
Failed relationships: “I can’t believe you…”
“I can’t believe you forgot my birthday.”
“How could you not take out the trash?”
Ouch. While it hurts to be forgotten or let down, it also hurts to start a discussion with your character in question.
Every time I started the argument with this, we ended up in a huge fight about how he does try hard and does care and still loves me but messed up this “one” time. When really, we should have been talking about what was happening underneath the surface—where I was hurting.
What’s working now: “I’m upset because…”
“You forgot my birthday and I’m upset because I feel like I don’t matter to you.”
“You didn’t take out the trash and I’m upset because now the house stinks. I did all the other chores and that was the one thing I needed you to do.”
“You went to Susan’s without telling me and I’m upset because I don’t feel like I can trust you.”
Yes, that last example is heavier than the others, but clarifying where the true pain is coming from is the only way to get better. I wouldn’t go to the doctor and say, “I don’t feel well. You’re a bad doctor.” I’d say, “I don’t feel well and this is what happened and here is where I hurt.”
If you can find it, bring up the root of the issue at the start. If you don’t know what it is right away, take some to figure out why you’re upset before diving into the conflict. Sometimes we just need to say “I’m upset. I need some time to sort through what I’m feeling before we talk about this,” and then make it a priority to sort it out.
2. The better “I’m sorry”
Failed relationships: “I’m sorry you’re upset.”
What an absolute load of garbage. GRRR. “I’m sorry you’re upset” is the same as “You’re upset so you get over it, and by the way, I’m not sorry.”
There is no acceptance of responsibility.
“But they didn’t mean to hurt me,” one might think.
Okay but picture this. You’re sitting on the couch watching TV. I stomp by and accidentally crush your toe. I didn’t mean to hurt you, but it didn’t feel great, did it? Whether I meant to or not, hurt came from something I did, and it’s important to acknowledge it when it comes from me.
What’s working now: “I’m sorry. How can I fix this?”
The first time I read that it sounded like they were brushing off the issue. But that sarcastic tone comes from my own projections from bad experiences. In my past, “How can I fix this?” usually also included the failed phrase above. It was said sarcastically and implied “When will you get over it?”
However, when spoken with absolute sincerity, “How can I fix this” shows that the person recognizes they hurt something, and genuinely wants to make things better moving forward.
They aren’t asking for a quick fit-it-all solution. “How can I fix this” could mean multiple steps that take months if not years, depending on what was hurt and what the other person needs.
3. The better “Please do this chore”
FAILED RELATIONSHIPS: “I’ll let you unload the dishwasher.”
This phrase is like nails scratching on a chalkboard to me. And for the younger folks who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a clip so we can share that experience.
Something as simple as “I’ll let you get the door,” sounds harmless, but at its core it establishes a dictator-servant relationship.
I know, that sounds dramatic, but think about it. Can the person being asked to do the thing say no? No. They can’t, because they’re not really being asked. They’re being told. “I’m gonna let you…” really means “I expect you to do this chore and this is me subtly letting you know.”
I mean…at least they let us know?
In a relationship built on equality, every request has a yes or no option. “Will you unload the dishwasher?” There’s an obvious answer that the asker wants (yes), but it still allows room for the ask-ee to say “No”, or even an “I will later.”
“I’ll let you…”
“I’m gonna let you…”
“You can do…when you get a chance.”
“Why don’t you…”
There’s a variety of ways to passive-aggressively tell someone to do a chore. Yet there are just many better ways to ask.
“When you get a chance, can you…?”
Okay, so there aren’t that many and the passive-aggressive commands are more creative. But for relationships to bloom and grow, both partners need to stand on equal ground.
Good relationships are not a King or Queen making commands to a servant. It’s a servant asking a servant.
4. The Better “I Love You”
Failed Relationships: “I love you!”
I spent 8 years in a bad relationship because I thought we loved each other. But after we broke up I realized it wasn’t love, it was more like a mutual tolerance of an activity buddy. Things were fine as long as we didn’t talk about the little things like marriage and life and the inevitable future.
But it wasn’t love. A lot of people say “I love you” but don’t know what it means or what it means might not be the same for both people. Soon after that break-up, I wrote about how important it is to figure out what love actually is.
“I love you” is a state of being. Make sure it’s actions and motion and not just a phrase. What actions show love? Well, check your love language, and your partner’s because they might not be the same.
What’s working now: “I love you!” + action
As cheesy as it is, I had Jake take the love language quiz and it’s helped. We learned we both value time and touch. Words don’t mean much to me but he thrives with affirmations. I can use words of affirmation and show him I love him by writing it out in a text, or when I’m really feeling it, a hand-written letter.
However, I have to warn you about those of us who value time.
A while ago, Jake and I had a huge fight while out for dinner.
He said, “We never spend time together,” and I was so shocked it took several moments before I swallowed the food in my mouth.
“We literally went to the gym together twice this week and hung out over discord two nights,” I said, and then we argued.
Although knowing Jake was somewhere in the gym at the same time was fine for what I perceived as spending time together, it turns out, to quite a few people, doing something while together is not equal to spending time together. My friend Theresa shared a story that helped me see it another way.
Right in the middle of COVID, when the world shut down and almost everyone worked from home, she and her boyfriend were watching TV on the couch together. She said, “We don’t spend time together anymore.”
His jaw (and mine when I heard the story) dropped open.
“We literally spend every moment together. We’re quarantined,” he eventually replied.
“It’s not the same,” she said.
And I kind of get it now. What works for people like Jake and my friend is taking time to deliberately pour attention and love into the other person. Going to the gym together is not the same “togetherness” as going on a date.
With that final word of caution, I hope to replace the old phrases that don’t work, with the grown-up versions that are more clear. It’s difficult to learn how to rephrase something, especially if those phrases last for generations—but putting in the effort can lead to learning more about what each of us can work on to have happier, lasting, fulfilling, and rewarding relationships.
Karianne is the founder of Windmill Ways. She plays the cello professionally and currently works as an Art Director for a charity. Because she loves animated shows and movies, she studies 3D animation and graduated with a BFA with the unfortunate class of 2020. Her dream vacation would be just staying home, but "home" being a glamorous cabin somewhere in the mountains surrounded by forest.
Favorite band: Lord Huron
Favorite book: This Present Darkness
Favorite quote: "Get all the advice and instruction you can, so you will be wise the rest of your life. You can make many plans, but the Lord’s purpose will prevail." Proverbs 19:20-21 (NLT)
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