If you want to grow vegetables, the soil in your garden needs a healthy ratio of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.* Your romantic relationship also has a formula for success. Research by Dr. John Gottman has found that we need a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions with our intimate partner in order for love to thrive.
Folks in the field of interpersonal neurobiology say that this finding makes perfect sense. Dr. Rick Hanson, for example says that the default setting in our brains goes like this: our brains are Velcro for that which is negative and Teflon for that which is positive. In other words, one little snide comment will stick in our brains (and gets replayed over and over), while compliments and kind gestures tend to “count’ less. I know this tendency of ours confers an evolutionary advantage by keeping us on our toes for all of the dangers that proved deadly to our ancestors, but in modern life, this tendency is a basically a major pain in the ass. It plays out in my life all of the time, as I’m sure it does in yours. For example, when I am lecturing to a room full of people, rather than focusing on the many who are smiling, nodding, and taking notes, I get all weirdly focused on the one dude snoozing in the back row. Sigh. Our brains are Velcro for negativity and Teflon for positivity.
So what does that mean for our love lives? It means that we need to be proactive about building a thick cushion of warmth and support so that we can weather the inevitable rough moments when they happen. It means that we need to always be looking for ways to do more of the good and less of the bad. And it means that we need to be really mindful of what we say and do if we want to create the conditions in which love can flourish.
Toward that end, let’s look at three things that you should never say to your romantic partner. First a caveat: I am leaving out obvious stuff like name-calling, lying, threatening, and giving ultimatums. These three are more moderate and less dramatic, but they are problematic nonetheless… and I have heard them lots of times in my therapy office!
1. “If you loved me, you would….”
What you are saying when you say this is that you really really want your partner to say or do something. The problem is that your partner can easily say back to you, “Well, if you loved me, you wouldn’t ask me to…” It is far more “intimacy-inviting” (as I call it in my book) to say instead, “I am having such a hard time understanding what is keeping you from doing X. The story I am telling myself is that you must not love me very much.”
2. “Why isn’t it like it used to be between us?”
When people say this, they are fighting against the reality that love changes over time. The way you feel in Year 1 of your relationship is not the same as the way you feel in year 7. Wishing the relationship was the way it used to be keeps you stuck in a fairy tale. Instead, ask for what you want, right here right now. “I want us to go out on dates like we used to do” or “I would love for you to give me a massage like you used to do.” More vulnerable? Yes! More likely to get you what you want! Hell yes!
3. “You’re acting just like your mother!” (or your father, or your Great Uncle Saul)
Unless you’re saying it in a complementary way (“You’re acting just like your mother who shows tremendous grace under pressure”), just don’t. Even if your declaration holds some truth, it is guaranteed to start a fight! A comment like this is below the belt and likely to trigger nothing but defensiveness in your partner. Instead, describe the specific behavior your partner is exhibiting and talk about what that behavior stirs up within you. “You are raising your voice a lot right now. When you do that, I feel shut down and frustrated. It makes me want to pull away from you.”
Love is hard work and bumps in the road are 100% inevitable. The challenge is to figure out how to work together against the rough patch instead of against each other. When you’re feeling too angry to work together, it’s far braver to say, “I’m going to take a break. I love us too much to say something now that I will regret later.” The climate between lovers is fragile, and comments like those featured above are guaranteed to shift the space between you and your partner toward greater distance and hostility. See what happens when you think about your romantic relationship like a tomato plant, remembering that it’s your job (and your partner’s job) to do everything you can to create the conditions that yield maximal yumminess and growth.
*I have no clue about nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. I just googled “healthy soil conditions” because I needed an analogy. My gardening skills are woefully lacking, as evidenced by the 4 tomatoes and one oddly shaped cucumber that my daughter and I managed to harvest last summer.