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

Dr. Steven Cohn

"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."

As I wrote last time, these are statements that I often hear during couples counseling sessions. And it bears repeating ­ 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.

In the previous column we looked at how destructive and limiting the words "should," "ought," and "must" can be when you're trying to resolve a conflict with your partner. This time we will look at the use of the words "never" and "always."

Seldom is any relationship issue as black or white as is implied by the words "never" or "always." That is, it's rare that a member of a couple will either never or always act in a particular way. It might be more accurate to say that a person will either often or seldom act in a particular way. A subtle difference, yes, but a difference with great weight and often grave consequences for communications.

Consider a fictional couple. Rita says, "You never listen to me." Bill, knowing that he often listens to Rita, becomes defensive and says, "You always blame me for everything." Rita, knowing that she often takes personal responsibility for relationship difficulties, withdraws in anger. The outcome: Bill and Rita end up feeling disappointed and nothing gets resolved. The culprit: "never" and "always."

Is it really probable that Bill never, ever listens to Rita? Not likely. Is it possible that Bill listens to Rita less than Rita desires? Sure. Is it likely that Rita always blames Bill for everything? Probably not. Might she be blaming Bill more often than feels justified to him? Yes, that could happen.

What can Bill and Rita say that will be less likely to cause a defensive reaction? Bill, for example, might say, "I'm feeling frustrated because it feels like you aren't listening to me." Julie, no longer on the defensive, might then respond, "I guess I've been feeling distant. I'm not sure what to do." Defenses down, Bill and Rita are ready to try to work things out.

If you want to resolve an issue with your partner, you would be well advised to delete the words "never" and "always" from your conversation. If eliminating "never" and "always" 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 650-7230.