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Should, Ought, Must, Never, Always!
by Steven M. Cohn, PhD

"You never want to have sex." "You always yell at me." "You should give me what I want." "You ought to do a better job." "You must finish this today."

Dr. Steven Cohn
These are statements that I often hear during couples counseling sessions. These statements have one communications-destroying element in common. The listener is almost guaranteed to become defensive and unwilling to continue listening to the speaker.

First, "you" statements are likely to cause the listener to become defensive, as they often sound blaming or directive. I am yet to meet a person who wants to be blamed or told what to do.

Second, the underlined words (in the opening paragraph) often have a powerful, negative impact on communications.

Let's look at "should," "ought," and "must." Who is to say that any of us should, ought, or must do anything, ever. These three words take away choice and limit options. By using any of these three words the speaker is imposing a magical, external pressure on their partner while simultaneously cutting off creative thinking.

Consider this fictional couple. Bill says, "You should give me what I want." Bill's wife, Rita, now feeling defensive, might say, "Why should I?," or "Who says I should?" Bill is then liable to feel defensive in response to Rita's challenge. The likely outcome: Bill and Rita both become defensive, angry, and withdrawn. They will not resolve their conflict or understand each other's feelings.

Consider another hypothetical couple. Julie says, "I feel hurt that we don't have sex more often." Julie's unmarried partner, Paul, having neither been told what to do or blamed for their sex life, might respond, "I'm sorry Julie, I know that you want to have more sex. I'm not sure what to do." The likely outcome: Julie and Paul will continue their conversation and will begin to understand each other's feelings and needs better. Will they resolve the issue of how often they have sex? Maybe and maybe not. But, they will be able to talk about their issues with greater understanding and without becoming angry. The quality of their relationship will be better than the quality of Bill and Rita's relationship even though neither couple necessarily resolved their issues.

Next time we'll take a close look at "Never" and "Always."

If eliminating "should," "ought," and "must" from your conversations doesn't lead to fewer arguments in your relationship, it might be time to see a relationship specialist.

If you are in a relationship where you are being either emotionally or physically abused, or if you are concerned that you might harm yourself or someone else, please phone the 24-hour-per-day Crisis Line at 215-7082. A trained counselor will help you through your crisis.

Dr. Steven Cohn is the Director of the Portland Couples Counseling Center. He specializes in treating couples from all backgrounds. If you would like to schedule an appointment with Dr. Cohn or if you would like to request a complimentary brochure, please phone 503-650-7230.