Back in the late 1960s, a Canadian philosopher named Marshall McLuan coined an expression, "the medium is the message," that struck a chord. The phrase went around the world.
In a marriage or committed relationship, words are the medium of communication. Words (and the way you say them) carry messages back and forth between the partners that affect emotions and connection.
Words are the medium that can support a marriage or partnership. They can make it thrive or destroy it. Utterance by utterance.
All words and feelings (good and bad) exist in a long-term marriage or committed relationship. They have to. That’s reality.
But it’s the work of the ongoing partners to try to guide their language into words that will help the relationship thrive and grow, rather than corrode and wither. (I’ll use the word "partner" here to connote both marriages and committed relationships.)
Words can convey many meanings. They can be direct or subtle. They can show love or hate. The tone of voice of the person saying the words can promote harmony or hostility. Words and their delivery can express sympathy or contempt.
To recast a maxim that’s going around these days, "Words Matter."
So here are some phrases that every healthy couple should feel comfortable saying that will help your relationship grow. They’re good phrases for couples that are struggling in their relationships, too.
1. "What can I do?"
I got this one from the Frank and Claire Underwood in House of Cards, the Netflix-produced political drama.
When Claire comes home after a difficult day at work, no matter how difficult Frank’s day was like, he will ask her, "What can I do?" He says it with caring, compassion, tenderness, and most importantly, in truthfulness.
It shows that Frank (even though he might be a murderer at times) has a good store of emotional intelligence.
Saying "What can I do?" has a wonderful effect on a marriage. Claire’s response is almost always, "Nothing." Yet, the words of caring help tremendously. When the words are said with deep honesty, as the Underwoods say it, they are relationship builders.
2. "What do you mean by that?"
Relationships can be the Tower of Babel in terms of speaking and not understanding the other person. Even when we’ve lived with the person a very long time.
We make assumptions as to what the other person means by projecting our own values and history on the words we hear. These misunderstandings are surprisingly frequent.
Sharon Strand Ellison, in her book, Taking the War Out of Our Words, teaches us how to formulate open-ended, non-assumptive questions that don’t feel or sound like interrogations but which can unearth what the other person is actually thinking and feeling.
You can find something out about your partner when you say, "What do you mean by that?" Replace the word "that" with the word or phrase used by your partner. Say it in a very soothing non-threatening way. Just try to find out what your partner really means.
You may already be ticked off by your partner, so take a breath, assume the best, and ask the question in a musing, vulnerable, unguarded way. If you ask it in a suspicious or aggressive tone of voice, it won’t work.
When it does work, it opens up new lines of communication between you and your partner.
3. "Thank you."
This one seems so easy and simple, and yet, we don’t do this enough with our partners. John Fiske is a lawyer/mediator in Boston, who believes that all marriages rise and fall on two factors — control and acknowledgment.
Acknowledgment means giving your partner the appreciation that he or she deserves, on a daily basis. (It sounds sappy, but it’s really important).
For the "control” issue, see below. But when you say it, say it with a generous and appreciative heart. Our partners do so many things that we should thank them for.
4. "Would you like to drive now?"
Driving in a car with your partner can be a setting for some of the most barbarous interactions you might have. You’re not alone. It is very typical for long-term partners to fight about control in a car — after all, your life depends on how well you or your partner drives.
Here’s a slide show that I put together a while back that describes all the driving issues you might face with your significant other.
The driving issues include "What is the Best Route to Take?" (Sound familiar?), "Tailgating" (anger in marriage), "Signaling Every Turn" (partners have different standards in terms of following rules), "Parallel Parking" (people come from different backgrounds — the rural spouse may not be so good at doing this).
And finally, the perennial issue, "Backing Up the Car" (sometimes you just have to trust your partner). The upshot is that all the driving disputes mirror typical marital disputes. Many of them revolve around the issue of "control." (Thank you, John Fiske).
Knowing that your spouse doesn’t want to get killed in the car as much as you do helps.
5. "Would you like me to help?"
This little phrase can never be said enough. You may think your partner doesn’t need help. Maybe your partner doesn’t. But you’ll be surprised at how often the answer is, "Yes, I would appreciate it." Close personal relationships thrive and fall on something called "contribution."
Helping your partner is a contribution you can make. And just asking the question, no matter the answer, is a way of showing that you want to contribute.
People feel good about their relationships if they feel the other partner is contributing as much as they are. Conversely, people are dissatisfied with their relationships if they feel the other person is not pulling his or her weight.
Most of the complaints and bad feelings in a committed partnership involve the issue of contribution, when you come right down to it. So don’t let this important issue remain unsaid. Ask your partner if she or he would like your help.
6. "What would you like to do? "
Here’s another important one to bear in mind. It has to do with generosity, another essential nourishment of a committed relationship.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the more generous you are, the more satisfied your partner will be. And yet recently many academics (I guess they are kind of rocket scientists) are doing just that — conducting academic studies on the importance of generosity in marriages.
It seems that when the relationship is no longer new, we tend to promote our own wishes and desires over our partner’s. Think about it... are you ever guilty as charged of that behavior? Everyone is.
So at least a couple of times a day, if there is an occasion, say this phrase to your partner. You might be surprised at the answer — maybe you’ll even have a new adventure and get out of a rut.
7. When your partner says something to you, start your response with, "Yes, dear."
I call this priming the pump or patterning loving behavior. If you use it, be very care not to say it sarcastically. But if you say it sincerely, the "dear" is said and received. It’s a form of verbal affection.
It's a subtle way of saying "I love you." If you are a "dear," you are loved. "Sweetheart" is another of these love triggers. Many couples have their own terms of endearment, so just use the one that has come naturally to you in the relationship. And be generous about saying them.
Say these words often and sincerely. You will be amazed at how they can improve the level of tenderness you and your partner feel towards each other. It can have a domino effect on your relationship.
Words can create moods and emotions. Use them well and choose them carefully.
Laurie Israel is a lawyer/mediator located in Massachusetts. You can read her articles on her firm’s website, www.ivkdlaw.com. She is the author of the forthcoming book, "Do We Actually Need a Prenup? A Leading Expert Answers Your Questions about Prenuptial Agreements."