I'm Trying To Stop Telling My Husband To "Shut Up"

Out of all the name slinging and profanity my husband and I use, it's funny how those two really simple, almost juvenile, words can sting the most.
Publish date:
October 17, 2013
marriage, shut up, arguing

My husband and I have always had a playfully argumentative relationship.

We tease each other, we bicker, we both really, really like to be right. And because both of us regularly deal in words -- him as a PhD student, and me, well, here -- we happily argue the finer points of what was REALLY meant until one of us falls asleep or something better comes on TV.

It's what makes us, us, and even in the heat of a passionate argument, both of us are always acutely aware of where the line is. We are never purposely cruel or hurtful in our banter. Sometimes feelings accidentally get hurt, and it's like our little melodrama instantly ceases and we're really good at switching gears to "I'm sorry, I was an ass head."

Like most people who've known each other intimately for years and years, we've sort of created our own lexicon, where I can say to him, "Hey, astro-turd!" when he is behaving as such, and it doesn't land as an insult.

The few times that the words HAVE really hurt, the argument almost always involved a vehement, "SHUT UP."

Out of all the name-slinging and profanity we both use, it's funny how those two really simple, almost juvenile, words can sting the most.

I really started thinking about this past week while I was visiting family in Florida.

The trip was not an easy one. I won't go into it here, but my husband and I were in Florida to help take care of a family member who is sick. The chemotherapy kind of sick.

Amidst all the feelings and stress and worry, my husband and I were relatively bicker-free the whole time. Any issues we had with each other were quieted in favor of keeping as much peace as possible.

However, due to the emotional situation, some of those quieted issues got briefly unquieted one night before dinner.

My husband, my mother-in-law, and I were sitting at the dinner table chatting before dinner. I don't even remember what we were talking about, but at one point my husband said something I just couldn't keep my mouth shut about, and when I called him on it, admittedly a little more forcefully than the situation warranted, and he roared back with a vitriolic, "Shut up!"

Maybe it was how raw all the feelings were, maybe it was how quickly the moment escalated but I felt like smacked upside the head. There was only a split second of a pause where I decided whether or not to let the moment explode or diffuse. I chose to bite my tongue -- WAY wrong place and wrong time to start a fight -- but I couldn't help but feel the angry tears starting to rise in my eyes, and the lump start to choke my throat.

When I get really angry, I tend to cry. It's my tell. I hate it sometimes.

The awkward moment burning between us, we both turned back to my mother-in-law to try and continue our conversation.

I know she saw that flash of hurt pass between the two of us, and what she said next has really stuck with me.

"Partners shouldn't tell each other to shut up. You always remember when somebody tells you to shut up and means it. Who wants to remember things that way?"

This was not said unkindly, or with judgment, but quietly and with the understanding of someone who has been in love, and in a healthy relationship with someone for decades.

Her words really stuck with me. Yeah, we toss around "Oh, shut up" between us all the time in jest, but when it's said with real intention behind it, it's amazing how those two little words that we hear all the time can carry so many barbs. It was right then that I decided to try with all my might to never say "shut up" in anger again.

When I was working in the Los Angeles Unified School District, "shut up" was an off-limits phrase in elementary schools. When I was performing for young children this past summer, we were asked to remove "shut up" from one of the stories we told. Until recently I'd always felt that "shut up" was an innocuous phrase that oversensitive parents or school administrators were being overprotective of -- after all, it's not swearing, it's not a slur.

But put some oomph behind it, and a simple "shut up" can make a person feel so small.

It reminds me of the time I actually did shut up in the fifth grade. One of the cooler kids asked me my opinion on something, I don't know why, and their leader Ricky, said, "Why would you ask her? Nobody cares what she has to say. She should shut up."

It seems so silly and far away now, but in that moment I actually thought to myself, "Yeah, I should shut up. Does anybody really care what I have to say?" And though I've long since overcome that childhood trauma, I still hear echoes of "Nobody cares what you have to say!" in a strong, pointed "shut up."

I know I'm not innocent in this whole "shut up" thing. There have definitely been times that I've resorted to barking the phrase in a particularly nasty way when especially pissed off. And every time, I've almost immediately felt guilty at potentially imparting the sort of hurt that I've experienced before, at the hands of those words.

Recently, when I was especially stressed and cranky about a job, my husband wouldn't stop pestering me about it. I realize now that he was simply worried about me not going batshit insane while I was working, but in the heat of the moment I felt cornered and told him to, "SHUT UP! JUST SHUT UP!" That moment of hurt I saw in his eyes not only made all my anger dissipate, but filled me with such regret that I had hurt the person I love over something so stupid.

Maybe I'm sensitive. Maybe this is one of those things I'm giving too much value to. Maybe I just need to get a thicker skin, as I've been told so many times before. But the way I see it, there are so many opportunities for us to be told our opinions don't matter in our daily life, that the last place we need to hear it is from our most loved ones.

So I'm taking on an elementary school mentality, and I'm trying to eradicate "shut up" from my arguing vocabulary. If I've learned anything from being in a relationship for almost a decade, the last thing you need in a heated argument is a communication stopper like "shut up."

How do you feel about "shut up"? Are there any phrases or words you stay away from in argument?