Whether it's your partner, best friend, neighbor down the street, or the barista at your favorite local coffee shop, you're probably not intending for them to take the off-handed and unassuming comments you make as a personal dig. However, there are plenty of things that you likely say all the time without thinking about how they might be interpreted by those hearing them. And it's not because you're being thoughtless, it's just because they don't seem like a big deal to you. That's why it's important for you to know about the off-handed comments your partner is likely taking personally, because probably one of the very last people you'd want to consistently offend without realizing it is the person that you love most.
As it turns out, however, it might not be all that easy to always avoid saying something that your partner might take personally because, as Rachel Wright, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Romper in an email exchange, there's the potential that they could take nearly anything personally without you knowing that they did.
"It’s normal in our society to think things are about us," Wright says. "When our partner says something — especially negative — it’s totally natural to wonder how that applies to you or even jump to it being about you."
Preventing yourself from falling into this trap on a regular basis is all about paying attention: to what you're saying, how you're saying it, and how your partner responds.
"We can prevent this by being mindful about how what our partners tell us makes us feel. This will prepare us for a better response," Catharine Swain, a marriage and family therapist, tells Romper by email. "We can also be mindful about what we are saying to our partner and how they usually react to it. It is also helpful to understand how best our partner communicates so that there isn't confusion."
Knowing with what sorts of subjects you might want to tread lightly, however, can give you a good jumping off point.
1. "Is That What You're Wearing?"
Depending on your tone, it might not be that surprising when your partner takes this question poorly, but in some instances, you really might just be asking if that is what they're going to wear. You don't mean that they look terrible or that they should reconsider, you're just asking. "Most people don’t realize the comments may be taken personally by their partner because they don’t intend it negatively," Meredith Silversmith, MA, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Simply Great Relationships, tells Romper in an email exchange. You're not trying to hurt their feelings, but you inadvertently did along the way.
2. "Are You Feeling OK?"
Questions like "are you feeling OK?" or "do you think you're getting sick?" seem like good things to ask because they show that you care about your partner and are trying to be thoughtful. Swain says, however, that some people might take offense to something like this, even if you didn't mean for it to be anything but sincere. It makes sense. If you're asking if someone's doing OK or say something about how they look tired or sick, that implies that they don't look or aren't acting their best, which can definitely sound like an insult. Tread lightly.
3. "So-And-So Looks Good Today."
Even though a comment about someone else really isn't about your partner, they way they hear and interpret it can cause them to take it personally, even if that's not at all how you meant it. Wright says that what your partner is hearing is, "'Do I not look as good as that person?' What is it about that person that they think looks good?'" They're applying what you said about someone else to themselves and inferring how you think about them from that, which means they might take offense, no matter how innocuous you thought the statement was when you said it.
4. “You Shouldn’t Get Upset Over This."
Telling someone they shouldn't get upset about something is sort of like telling them to calm down, which also often doesn't go over very well.
"These types of comments are essentially some sort of judgment or critique of your partner," Silversmith says. "They’re statements about [them] that imply something needs to change and they’re not accepted as they are. Depending upon the circumstances, these types of comments may be taken personally or be hurtful."
5. “I Like Your Hair Better The Other Way.”
This might sound more like an obvious criticism, but, again, it might just be that you're offering up your opinion. You're not trying to offend them. It was well-intentioned, no matter how they reacted to it.
"The intentions are to offer help, a suggestion, or advice to help their partner improve," Silversmith says. "I can’t tell you how many people I hear this from — 'but, I just want to help!' Unfortunately, as soon as you phrase it as a 'you' statement with a suggestion of change, it’s likely to be seen as criticism."
6. "It Looks Like So-And-So Has Gained Weight."
Like a comment about how someone looks on a given day, an observation that someone has gained weight, at its surface, has nothing to do with your partner and isn't necessarily meant to carry any sort of judgement. But also like a comment about makeup, if it's something that they're sensitive about, they might take it personally, wondering if you think that they've gained weight recently too and curious if they're implying that it's a bad thing.
"Your partner could be taking something personally because they are sensitive to the delivery, tone, or underlining meaning of what you said," Swain says. "So it doesn't always have to be exactly what it is that you said, but how they interpreted it. So they take it personally because it has attacked something within them that they feel strongly about."
7. "Why Don’t You Add More Seasoning To This Next Time?”
This is another question that definitely feels like a critique of your partner's hard work or cooking skills, even if you didn't mean for it to be. Everyone has different preferences, so what tastes perfectly seasoned to them might not be quite right for you.
"If you’re saying 'you' and something that’s a criticism (even 'constructive') or critique, it may be taken personally by your partner," Silversmith says. "Use 'I' statements to describe your thoughts, feelings, and needs instead."
Paying closer attention to the way that you're speaking with your partner can, of course, help prevent an unnecessarily uncomfortable or hurtful situation. It's also important to remember that it's not always necessarily what you said, but how they hear it, so a little empathy and understanding can go a long way.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.