Are there any words in the English language as infuriating? Just ask a woman. On the surface, they seem harmless enough: A gentle reminder to take a deep breath, relax, and gain perspective before a relationship issue snowballs. Problem is, when a woman hears these two words from a man, the effects are anything but conciliatory. "Men are generally conditioned to take control in a heightened situation so when woman is upset, they may reach for the phrase 'calm down' in an effort to pacify her without realizing that they're making a bad situation worse," says Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., a New York City based licensed marriage and family therapist. Here's why a guy should never utter those two little words and how to deal if he does.
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It's dismissive: Let's say you're peeved because he invited his buddy (who you can't stand) to dinner when you assumed it was date night or you're having a heated discussion about that on-going relationship issue that never dies. He says, "calm down" but what you hear is: "You're being irrational." It's true: According to Hokemeyer, many women internalize this phrase to mean that their feelings aren't valid. "If she's worked up, the last thing she'll want to hear is that she's out of bounds or that her feelings are inappropriate," he says. "No one wants to feel like the unreasonable party."
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It's unhelpful: Yes, you're angry. That's clear, so telling you in not-so-many-words that you're angry won't do much to resolve an argument. Hokemeyer says "calm down" is a pat phrase that doesn't problem-solve since people generally don't like their feelings dictated. And if you're not (that) upset to begin with? Well, he just elevated the argument to epic proportions.
It's sneaky: Some guys use the phrase to genuinely try to diffuse an argument but others store it as a manipulation tactic, a form of reverse psychology when they're feeling powerless, says Hokemeyer, who calls the move classic projection; if a man feels angry and out of control, he'll tell the woman that she is angry and out of control. When she predictably responds by becoming more agitated, his own emotions are justified. It's full circle frustration—and not a fair fight. "The guys who use it intentionally have probably learned this behavior from observing it in their parent's relationship or through cultural messages that convey women are incapable of emotional regulation," he says. Ahem, "Real Housewives" of (pick your city).
So if your guy whips out this phrase in the heat of the moment, what should you do? Hokemeyer has a surprising solution: Simply agree with him. "Calmly respond by saying something like, 'Yes, I am upset and my feelings are valid,'" he says. Then suggest parting ways to cool off and call a friend to vent or go for a run or walk to release endorphins, natural mood-boosting neurotransmitters. And next time you're in a tiff, don't retaliate with those two little words.
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