There are some words and phrases that can cause serious problems in a spousal relationship. Father Henry Siew advises of some that should be avoided:

Note: In this article, 'he' and 'him' may be substituted for 'she' and 'her' and vice versa.

IN A THAI village there was a couple who quarrelled often. Finally, they decided to divorce. On their way to the government office to file the divorce application they had to cross a stream. However at the crossing the water was a little deep and the wife hesitated. Without uttering a word, her husband lifted her up and carried her across the stream. When they reached the office, the wife said that she had changed her mind about the divorce. When asked for the reason, she explained, "If we divorce now, who will carry me across the stream when we return home?"

Though told in jest, the story has a moral lesson. We know that married couples will argue, quarrel and fight. But this need not affect the quality of their married life as long as both understand that their love for each other is above these conflicts and they learn how to disagree and avoid words that may cause irreparable hurt.

The following are some examples of what not to say when arguing:

"You are hopeless"

Mrs Lee is envious of other women whose husbands seem attentive to their wives' needs. She often criticises her husband, an engineer, lamenting that he is hopeless, just because he seems to know next to nothing besides his work. Her intention could be to encourage her hubby to learn other skills or take up hobbies. Unfortunately, the result of her frequent complaints is her husband's broken ego.

Everyone of us has his or her weakness, be it in looks, behaviour or ability. We all make mistakes. And we do not like our weaknesses or mistakes to be exposed or highlighted. You should not allow your spouse's "shortcomings" to affect your relationship with him. When you use them as "weapons" to win an argument, you will hurt your spouse and seriously damage the relationship.

The correct way to treat your spouse is to be understanding and supportive.

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"It is my misfortune to marry you"

If your spouse loses his job (or has other troubles), focusing on the problems that this will cause you and the family - such as not being able to buy the car you had planned for or having to discontinue your daughter's piano lessons - you would get very disappointed and negative. This might lead you to say words like "I must have been blind to marry you " or "it is my bad luck to be your wife". This will not only hurt the spouse's pride but bring retaliation and jeopardise the relationship.

"Look at so-and-so..."

Comparing your spouse unfavourably with someone else may lead you to say something hurtful like "Our neighbour Mr Tan is so patient, unlike you." or "Look at Lin's husband; he is young and already a general manager; what about you?" Your spouse may keep quiet (but feel extremely embarrassed if he is an introvert), or he may retort with harsh words like "if so-and-so is so good, why don't you marry him". Unfair comparisons, if used often, would be suicidal for marriage. Instead, when your spouse is down, show him understanding and encouragement. He will appreciate the gesture and the relationship will be good.

"It's none of your business"

One of the most treasured elements of a marriage is trust. Just trusting each other will deepen a relationship. The worst enemy of a marriage is suspicion which will cause quarrels and fights. Words like "none of your business" which signal a refusal to share will create misunderstanding and more suspicion.

For example, you come home late and your spouse asks why. You reply with "it is none of your business". You say this maybe because you are tired but your spouse will feel hurt and may even begin to suspect that you are hiding some secrets.

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"I don't need you"

Saying "I don't need you" in a serious tone is something not to be taken lightly. Your spouse gets the impression that she is unloved and unwanted. Saying the word "divorce" is even more serious. This word should never be used because it denotes "giving up" and will cast a shadow of despair over the relationship.

Saying "if you hate me so much, let's go our separate ways" for the first time when you quarrel may surprise your spouse and make her stop the fight to ease the tension. However, if this phrase is repeated too often, your spouse may think that you no longer love her or she may even suspect that you are involved with a third party.

Remarks about separation, even if it is not really intended, will affect the relationship, and if not corrected may really end up with separation. One should always be mindful of what you say to your spouse especially during a heated argument. Let your quarrel be for love of your relationship and for better mutual understanding, but never for personal victory.

St. Paul says, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." (Eph 4:29)


Father Henry Siew, parish priest of St. Anne's Church, is the spiritual director to the Mandarin Marriage Encounter Weekend.

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