Content Warning: Relationship Abuse, Mental Illness, Suicide
The word “abuse” tends to stop a conversation in its tracks. It’s a word that doesn’t apply to *us* or *our relationships*, and it feels extreme enough not to inspect it any further.
We all think we know what relationship abuse looks like — something along the lines of Chris Brown and Rihanna, explosive scenes in public, dangerous scenes in private. We all think we know what an abuser looks like — a man, usually a big man, with insecurity and fake confidence who takes it all out on his frail wife. We also assume that abusers are the only ones who abuse. That there is a type of evil person who treats others poorly and they’re doing it on purpose.
The truth is, you don’t have to be a serial abuser, or an “abuser” at all, for you to cross a line with a partner. Maybe you’re feeling anxious or insecure. Maybe they hurt your feelings and you want them to feel bad. Maybe you genuinely don’t think you’re hurting their feelings. It’s just a joke, right?
Anyone, even a truly good person, can use guilt as a weapon, can try to put someone down, can say what they feel they have to in order to keep their partner from leaving. If you don’t interrogate your reactions and practice measuring your emotions before speaking to your partner, you may wind up alienating them in the long run. You may be a wonderful, loving person. But that does not let you off the hook from putting in the actual work to be a good partner.
Here are some lines commonly deployed by people who don’t realize the emotional toll it takes on their partners. If you find you’re guilty of saying some of them, that does NOT necessarily mean you’re a bad person or even a bad partner. It means that you may have to evaluate why you’re saying them, and how you can better control your reactions in the moment.
Anyone can be better. But the first (incredibly painful) step has to be honesty with yourself.
1. “I just don’t like hanging out with your friends.”
The subtext: I don’t want to be part of your community.
It’s possible that your partner’s friends actually do suck. It wouldn’t be the first time a wonderful, sensitive person somehow surrounded themselves with bullies. If your partner’s friends are actually rude or mean to you, that may be something to address directly — is it something you did during that crucial first impression? Are they primed to dislike anyone your partner dates? Does your partner only vent about the bad, while failing to balance out with your good qualities or the good parts of your relationship?
Any of that may be true, but, just as likely, you don’t like your partner’s friends simply because they aren’t your friends. You feel left out around them — they have their own jokes, their own history, and they will likely be together even after you and your partner break up. Of course, it would make you uncomfortable to be around, especially knowing that your partner probably talks about you.
But hanging out with your partner’s friends is part of being a partner. If they invite you, it’s because they want you to share in their life. And insulting someone’s friends is the fast-track to souring their opinion of you.
In short, if your partner’s friends are rude, you don’t have to keep that to yourself. But you have to offer understanding, and remember that those friends were likely there before you. Be forgiving of their faults, and remember that you’re spending time with them to show your partner that you want to be in their life, not because you want to be best friends with their friends.
2. “You should let me pick — you have terrible taste in…”
The subtext: Your opinion is worth less than mine.
Maybe your partner listens to nothing but butt rock and eats nothing but Hawaiian pizza with extra peas and anchovies. Maybe they dress like they’re coming straight from a sloppy joe eating contest. Whatever your complaints about your partner’s tastes, clearly you saw past them when you fell for them, even though those tastes are part of who they are.
The bottom line is this: dating is about partnership, compromise, and, of course, maintaining healthy autonomy. If you don’t want to go to the restaurant your partner picked, but you picked the last five date spots, maybe it’s your turn to suck it up and give it a shot. Chances are, they’ve done the same for you, especially if you’re usually the one calling the plays.
Making it a matter of putting down your partner’s tastes makes them feel worthless, and makes them wonder what you even like about them. Personal taste is so individualized, and you’re never going to see eye to eye on every matter. So attacking what they like as objectively bad is going to make them feel deeply insecure about making suggestions or offering opinions.
Instead, try to give as much as you take. You can even make a rule about it: I choose one, you choose one, I choose one, etc. Or, when you find something you both like, cling to it like the white flag it is!
3. “You can meet my family if you promise not to be all X the way you usually are.”
The subtext: You have to change if you want me to be serious about you.
Meeting the family is huge. You want your parents to approve, even if you think you don’t care. And it hurts when your partner is rude to them, even if your partner is right. It’s a sensitive thing that usually indicates a milestone in a relationship — which is exactly why people tend to dangle “meeting the parents” as a reward for good behavior.
The sentiment is essentially, “You’ll get proof that I’m serious about you when you earn it.” And while no one should ever pressure you to introduce them to your parents, it’s a stressful enough thing on its own without it turning into an excuse to let them know exactly what about them embarrasses you. It’s hurtful, and will almost certainly make them even more nervous (and thus even more awkward) around your family when the time comes.
4. “Your X is ugly, but I actually don’t mind it that way.”
The subtext: You should feel lucky I’m willing to stoop for you, and you may not get that lucky again.
You know your partner’s flaws. That means you probably also know your partner’s insecurities. Maybe not every inch of their body is a perfect turn-on for you — whether it’s their hairy feet, their bad morning breath, their lack of muscle, or weird mole. If you’ve noticed it, we can guarantee your partner already knows it about themselves.
It’s okay to not feel attracted to every inch of their body. What’s not okay is pointing it out (even if they ask), and what’s especially not okay is the implication that, while you’re kind enough to look past it, others won’t be. On top of the standard issue of body shaming or adding to their insecurity, you’re implying that they aren’t inherently attractive, or that it’s a fluke that even one person finds them sexy.
You’re setting them up to feel terrible, and to believe that if they ever lose you, they’ll never find anyone willing to look past whatever flaw you just pointed out.
Instead, focus on what you do like about them. Give genuine compliments about the things that genuinely draw you to them. And if they ask, point blank, “Is my butt ugly?” Guess what! You don’t have to tell the truth. You’re allowed to deflect or say something kind in its place, like the trusty, “I’m biased because I find you so attractive,” or “you’ll have to ask someone who doesn’t hope to see you naked later.”
5. “If you ever X, I’ll break up with you on the spot.”
The subtext: If you do something I don’t like, I’ll punish you by breaking up with you.
There are some hard lines we all understand. Cheating is a big one, playing fast and loose with consent in a huge one. You can let your partner know what your hard lines are, and speak honestly about what sorts of actions you cannot tolerate in a partner.
But when it comes down to it, this sort of ultimatum makes your partner feel undervalued, and like they’re walking on egg shells in your relationship. Dangling the possibility of leaving them as a punishment for a misstep sends the message that you care more about them following your rules than about preserving the relationship.
6. “You know I’m right.”
The subtext: Your side doesn’t count.
Every time you tell your partner that they know you’re right, you’re telling them that what they think and feel is wrong, and, essentially, that they are lying to themselves. The implication is that they’re being irrational or arguing just for the sake of being combative. It’s dismissive and indicates that you’re grabbing the upper hand without truly listening to their side of the discussion.
If you start to feel yourself step toward this line of thinking, reconsider whether you’re trying to tell them they know you’re right, or if it would be more accurate to say, “I’m frustrated that you don’t agree with me, even though I feel I have been perfectly convincing.” Clearly, if they aren’t convinced, either you haven’t been as coherent as you thought you were, or they have a different enough opinion on the matter that no, they probably do not know you’re right. Start over, but this time, go into it with the mindset that maybe they’ve got a point, too.
7. “You’re doing that/making me feel bad on purpose!”
The subtext: You’re responsible for how I feel.
Your partner probably isn’t a bully, and probably genuinely wants you to feel happy and cared for. That’s why they’re dating you — they like you and want you to feel good.
Of course, your partner may be guilty of the same things we’re describing here. Maybe they’re punishing you for something you did. Maybe they’re taking out their bad day on you.
But even so, it’s important to remember, your partner cares for you. Your partner doesn’t want to hurt you. By blaming them for your feelings, you’re putting a lot of additional pressure on them and making unfair assumptions about their motives. It’s a combination of wielding guilt as a weapon against them, making them doubt their own role in your feelings, and making them responsible for anticipating exactly how each action will make you feel.
8. “If you cared about me, you would…”
The subtext: You must cater to my wishes.
This one is pretty obvious. Right off the bat, you know you’re setting up an unfair dichotomy any time you try to balance the entirety of your partner’s feelings for you against whether or not they make the choice you want. It’s true that there are choices your partner may make that will lead you to feel underappreciated, unloved, or worthless. But you already know your partner wants the best for you, and deploying this line makes them feel that you don’t see their good intentions. It’s a classic manipulation tactic that feels oh-so natural in the moment.
Instead, try phrasing it as how you feel. “It makes me feel cared for when you do x.” Try asking why they made a choice. “Why do you want to do y, knowing I prefer x?” Whatever your fix, never make it a question of asking your partner to prove their feelings for you by blindly accepting your demands.
9. “You can’t go out dressed like that.”
The subtext: I don’t want you wearing that.
Any time you criticize your partner’s clothing, you have to remind yourself that it’s likely coming from one of two places.
One: you don’t want your partner to dress in a way that is sexually revealing because you’re worried that they will attract unwanted or — even worse — wanted attention. You don’t want other people to see your partner’s body, to see them as a sexual being, or to see them as potentially on the table. But why would that bother you, unless you’re feeling insecure about your partner actually wanting to be in this relationship? Do you think that all it takes is someone flirting with them for them to ditch you? If so, what they wear likely isn’t the issue. This sort of insecurity is worth discussing, as long as you’re careful to remember that it’s coming from within you, not from them.
Two: you think they look bad, and you’re worried about how it makes you look to be seen with them. You know your partner is attractive, but, for all of the usual reasons, it’s important to you that other people agree. You want them to look good because that makes you look good, but every time you let something like this slip, you’re revealing to them the concern that they’ll make you look bad. This can be belittling, and make them feel insecure and unattractive. Rather than negging an outfit you dislike, compliment the ones you do like. Let them know when they look good. They want to please you, and are more likely to feel good about choosing an outfit you like than about having to go change after you’ve nixed an outfit at the door.
10. “You act too sad.”
The subtext: You should hide your emotions.
It’s true that no one likes to hang around people who are moping, but your partner is likely showing you their emotions because they trust you not to judge. Of course, dating someone seriously doesn’t mean putting every problem on them, making every little thing their problem. But it does mean trusting them to listen to you when you’ve had a bad day, to hear you out when you’re feeling bad. If you want to be able to rely on your partner for any kind of emotional support, you have to be prepared to offer the same.
Telling someone they’re acting too sad doesn’t make them happier — it makes them think they have to hide how they feel around you. In the long run, that wedge becomes a brick wall. If you think your partner may be suffering from depression, it isn’t your job to play therapist or enabler, but it’s your responsibility, as someone who cares for them, as someone they trust, to offer guidance toward professional help, and to encourage them to take steps toward happiness — rather than asking them to put on a fake smile.
11. “You never think about what I need.”
The subtext: You aren’t putting my desires before your own, and that bothers me.
Maybe your partner actually is selfish, maybe they actually don’t care about your needs. But if that were the case, why would you be dating them?
It’s much more likely that when you feel the impulse to say something like this, it’s because you’re feeling neglected or forgotten in the moment. Did your partner forget your birthday? Did they cancel on dinner with your parents? Did they just fail to go the extra mile when you had a bad day? All of those things are pretty crappy, but throwing in that “never” makes your partner feel that you’ve forgotten all those times they did plan something nice for you, or made it to dinner on time, or went the extra mile.
If you feel that they aren’t thinking about your needs, or that they’re putting something else above your relationship, ask yourself first if it actually is something you need, second if it’s something you think you actually need to work on in the future, and third if perhaps you just feel bad about their choice or priorities and thus want them to feel bad as well.
12. “You’re cute when you’re angry at me.”
The subtext: I’m belittling the reason you’re angry at me.
This doesn’t sound that bad up front, but, at its heart, this line hurts your partner on multiple levels.
The first is just classic deflection: I am saying something adjacent to the issue while not addressing the issue.
The second is diminishing their anger: I am unconcerned enough about your anger that I can take the time to think about how it looks on you.
The third is diminishing their person: I think your anger is cute, the same word I might use to describe a baby’s anger or a sleepy puppy’s anger.
What you’re saying here is your partner’s anger is not worth your direct attention, is small, is insignificant to you, and that you’re viewing it from a place of rationality, maturity, a place of no concern.
Instead, try listening to why they’re angry at you. Try paying attention to what they’re telling you. Address it as a rational concern, and let them feel heard. Then, when the fight is over, you can tell them how attractive they are when they’re standing up for themselves.
13. “You have no right to feel that way.”
The subtext: Your feelings are irrational.
Even if you feel your partner is overreacting or blowing things out of proportion, it is imperative to understand that everyone has a right to feel however they damn feel. Are they hurt, even though you meant it as a joke? Are they mad, even though you apologized? Whatever the feeling is that you don’t agree with, allow them the space to feel it. Shutting down their right to it makes your partner feel irrational, and like they have to try to hide their feelings from you.
Now, if they start to take it out on you, that’s another story. But even then, try an approach closer to something like, “I am having trouble understanding your perspective.”
14. “You can’t be mad because remember when you did X…”
The subtext: I will not forgive you for past transgressions.
As we just learned, it is never appropriate to tell someone what they can or cannot feel. If your partner is mad, take that as a fact, and try to work on it. Listen to why they are mad, and sincerely try to understand how you can make them feel better. Simply telling them that they are not allowed to feel a certain way has never worked.
If you feel that they’re being hypocritical for being angry at you for something they themselves have done in your relationship, that’s worth addressing, as it’s likely that, when they did it, they didn’t realize how it made you feel. You’re allowed to point this out, but try something closer to, “I can understand how you feel. I felt similarly when you did X, which is why I reacted why I did in that moment.”
Now, if you truly can relate, then you’ll understand why your partner is upset this time around — even if it is a little hypocritical not to recognize it. But you cannot hope to close this wound by re-opening
Of course, if the two events are completely unrelated, all you’re proving here is that you haven’t actually forgiven them for that past transgression. Keeping a laundry list of the ways they’ve hurt you serves one purpose only: keeping your arsenal of weaponized guilt as full as possible. Don’t like something they’re doing now? Bring up a way they hurt you, and watch them relive the guilt of that moment and shrink before you.
It may produce the desired contrition, but it’s unhealthy, and forces your partner to wonder if they will ever be forgiven.
15. “I have no reason to live without you.”
The subtext: If you leave, my suicide would be your fault.
It may seem a little dramatic to jump to that subtext read, but anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of a line like this will absolutely understand. Telling your partner that they’re your reason for living puts an immense amount of pressure on them. If they aren’t thinking of breaking up with you, it makes them feel solely responsible for your happiness. And then if you’re still unhappy? They’re reminded that it was their job and that your relationship still wasn’t enough to keep you well.
If they are thinking of breaking up with you, this kind of line makes them worried that when they do, you might actually make good on the threat. Of course, you’re using it as a figure of speech. You likely have no real thoughts of suicide and are just trying to express the depth of your feelings for them. But by framing it in this co-dependent way, you’re making it feel like a matter of life and death for them.
Even if you don’t mean anything serious by it, try framing this kind of sentiment as something like, “My life is so much better with you in it,” or “you enrich all of my experiences.”
16. “You’re probably cheating on me anyway.”
The subtext: I don’t trust you.
If your partner were cheating on you, throwing this in their face would probably not be the thing that finally roots it out. Instead, what you’re doing is punishing them for something they likely haven’t done and don’t intend to do. You’re telling them that you don’t particularly care if it’s true or not—what’s important to you is your insecurity, and instead of giving them the opportunity to put those fears to rest, you’re putting them on the defensive and telling them that you won’t believe them no matter what. They may not have even glanced at another person since meeting you, but when you accuse them in this offhanded way, it’ll make them feel like you don’t appreciate the work they put into their side of the relationship.
17. “You just can’t admit the truth because you’re scared/anxious/in denial.”
The subtext: I know you better than you know yourself.
Nobody likes the feeling of being “read.” When someone reads you accurately, it makes you feel naked and exposed. But here’s the thing… it’s accurate maybe one percent of the time. And you thinking that you know your partner better than they know themselves just makes you ignorant. You may feel that you know your partner’s strengths and weaknesses better than anyone alive, but you do not know them better than they know themselves, even in long term relationships. To imply it is condescending, aggressive, and belittling.
If your partner doesn’t agree with you or doesn’t want to agree to whatever you’re suggesting, maybe they have an incredibly good reason that you can’t see, or that they don’t trust you to understand. Maybe the truth you want them to admit isn’t actually their truth. If you’re wondering why they aren’t convinced by what you’re saying, start with how you’re addressing it before you blame their fear, anxiety, or denial.