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It Doesn't Matter That You Didn't Mean Those Things You Said

Most couples have been there - on the other side of a nasty fight, you have to reconcile the things you said with how you want to treat your partner. During conflict, particularly for high conflict couples, it's common (though definitely not ideal) to say things that you later feel disconnected from. Why did you say that thing, when right now you really don't feel like you mean it? And how can your relationship recover very hurtful comments that you can't unhear?

When Comments Cross A Line

During a fight, you tore apart your partner's abilities, appearance, or intentions. Although constructive criticism is a healthy part of relationships, ripping into your partner is not - it's cruel and destructive. This behavior can sound like:

  • "You'll never find someone as good as me again - no one else will put up with you."

  • "Your communication skills are pathetic."

  • "You're just pretending to be attracted to me so I don't leave you."

Out of context, comments like these seem absolutely wild - and unacceptable. But many couples struggle with exactly this type of vicious commentary during conflict. If this describes your relationship, you probably would not say this sort of thing if you weren't in the middle of a fight. The conflict serves as a permission slip for extra off-the-rails behavior.

"I Didn't Mean It"

In the aftermath of a fight where lines were crossed, it's common for the partner who said something cruel (sometimes both partners did) to try to explain that they really didn't mean that thing. You were angry. They wanted to hurt you. You don't even remember saying it and certainly don't believe it.

Not surprisingly, "I didn't mean it" can feel pretty hollow for the person who is left with the nasty words ringing in their head. Okay, so you didn't mean it - then why did you say it? If you didn't mean it, why was that particular awful thought even something that would come out of your mouth?

The truth is, in some way or another, you probably did "mean it." You had the thought, perhaps fleetingly, and you verbalized it. When you say "I didn't mean it" what you probably mean is, "now that I am better regulated, I can see that is an awful thing to say, and I don't believe it right now." Everyone thinks unkind or inappropriate thoughts sometimes, even about their partner. Thinking "my partner doesn't deserve me" really isn't a problem, as long as you choose to behave respectfully (including in your efforts to change or end the relationship). But stating "you don't deserve me" crosses a line into verbal abuse. The problem isn't with the thought, it's with the action.

Why Did You Say That Messed Up Thing?

When you are trying to repair after a destructive conflict, the most important question you can ask yourself is not whether you meant your behavior (was it a reflection of your true beliefs) but why you gave yourself permission to behave the way you did.

When it comes to cruel comments toward your partner, it is important to recognize that you have given yourself permission to say them. Often this comes in the form of logic, "they are trying to hurt me, so I am allowed to hurt them back." Or it might sound more like "I am so distressed that I can't really be held responsible for what I say and do."

One of the tricky things about changing your conflict pattern is that you have learned habits of behavior that can be very challenging to shift, even when you know better. Calling your partner unintelligent or unattractive or otherwise unworthy during conflict is a habit. It is a behavior you have learned to do, and somewhere along the way you started telling yourself that under certain circumstances, it is okay.

Your Standards Need To Change

One of the most important changes you can make is to shift your beliefs - not about your partner, but about yourself and your own behavior. Regardless of what you really "meant," what is for sure is that you have set standards of behavior that are not acceptable. Going forward, consider what commitments you can make, to yourself and to your partner, that are more in line with your values. For example:

  • "I won't threaten to end the relationship during conflict. If I want to discuss breaking up, I'll do it when we're both calm."

  • "I won't use very cruel or hurtful language to describe my partner."

  • "Feeling hurt is not an excuse for behaving hurtfully. My behavior is always my responsibility."

A first step to shifting your conflict pattern can be to discover what commitments you need to make and to practice sticking to them. If you find yourself saying something out of order, instead of trying to explain "I didn't mean it," focus on understanding why, in that moment, you told yourself it was okay to verbally attack your partner.

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