Even if you don’t find cursing offensive in general, it’s never particularly relaxing to hear couples swearing at one another in public.
So much so that some couples have, um, sworn off ever swearing in each other’s presence. For example, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have successful refrained from cursing at each other — angrily or playfully — for 20 years.
“I said to Jada, this is the deal: I grew up in a household where I watched my father punch my mother in the face, and I will not create a house, a space, an interaction with a person where there’s profanity and violence,” Smith explained on a recent episode of Red Table Talk, the Facebook show starring Pinkett Smith, their daughter Willow and Smith’s mother-in-law Adrienne. “If you have to talk to me like that, we can’t be together. We’re not going to use any profanity in our interactions, we’re not going to raise our voices. We’re not going to be violent. I can’t do it.”
But does cursing at one another always lead to such extremes — or constitute a sign that a romantic relationship is unhealthy? Especially given the multitude of venues for cursing (while shopping at Target or building something from Ikea; invoking a different vibe during sex; and of, course, when arguing). Isn’t it more individual than that? That is, getting called a “fucking asshole” by your romantic partner, or calling your partner a “bitch” or a “motherfucker” may either sound like your worst nightmare or light-hearted banter depending on your past experiences, communication style and sense of humor.
For an official diagnosis, I asked a three professionals — a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist specializing in sexuality and marriage and family therapist — what they thought. Here’s what they told me…
You’re Just Being Fucking Honest With Each Other
David Ley, clinical psychologist: I tell patients, audiences and my wife, research clearly shows that people who cuss more are more honest, because we aren’t filtering information before telling you what we think. Every time I drop the F-bomb, just reframe it as, “David is being really fucking honest with me right now.” If a couple can’t handle cussing within a relationship, I don’t think they “can handle the truth.”
It’s All About the Fucking Context
Amanda Luterman, a psychotherapist specializing in sexuality: It’s my understanding that swearing is used carelessly far more often than it’s used for the purpose of verbal violence, and the long-term consequences of using vulgarity has largely to do with the emotional climate in which it’s used. If members of a couple feel tense, on-guard, anxious, defensive, vulnerable, belittled, frightened or in any other way uncomfortable in the context in which vulgarity is used, it’s having a negative impact on the emotional safety in the relationship and probably resulting in a decrease in mood over time in one or more partners.
That said, I typically don’t bother discouraging potty mouths if it’s stylistically casual. But when folks argue, I remind them that vulgarity reliably conveys anger and hostility to most people and thoughts and feelings come out more harshly. Thus, people tend to run the risk of relaying disrespect more reliably when swearing and tend to not speak as carefully if it’s used in anger.
Where eroticism is concerned, like most behaviors, it’s all about consent. Vulgarity comes across as a lack of respect for the person in a degrading fashion if it wasn’t first verified with good intention. And nothing turns off a person faster than unwanted degradation. Yet, the right vulgarity in the context of a respectful relationship can be very arousing, and in fact, it’s a vital part of some healthy and satisfying relationships.
If I had a hard-and-fast rule about vulgar language in bed, it would be, if it makes things hotter, it’s great. If it’s what makes things hot, it’s not great.
It’s About So Much More Than Fucking Words
Gaea Woods, marriage and family therapist: People should be free to use whatever amount of profanity works for them, so long as their use of words isn’t hurting anyone. Like most things, it depends so much on context. Does a couple use profanity to playfully talk to each other throughout the day? Does bonding through mirroring one another bring the couple closer? Or does one partner curse during arguments to assert power and control over their partner? There’s a clear difference between cursing to add emphasis to an expression of frustration versus cursing as an intimidation tactic.
It’s also important to look at the meaning and history of the words you’re using. The first of four idioms author Don Miguel Ruiz describes in his book The Four Agreements is to be impeccable with your words. He speaks about the importance of saying only what you mean, avoiding using language to speak badly about yourself or to gossip about others. Instead, he encourages the use of words to express truth and love. His sentiment highlights the power of words and verbal expression. Being mindful of the intention behind the language you use can bring awareness to how you may (or may not) be hurting yourself or others through the use of your words.
The question of healthy communication is much easier to define than “normal communication.” The idea of “normal communication” might be defined by what we grew up with — for example, what communication style we experienced within our own household, and what we were exposed to within our community. Of course, this can widely vary from culture, geographic region, socioeconomic status and so on.
Therefore, the question of healthy communication is much easier to identify than “normal communication.” A good place to start when contemplating questions about whether your present relationship is healthy can be to examine what messages about yourself you may have internalized from past experiences. Just because you’re accustomed to a certain communication style — or are used to hearing a lot of profanity in your household — doesn’t necessarily mean that communication style is healthy.
Discussing issues of abuse can be difficult for couples and therapists alike. Discomfort and societal prejudice can interfere with openly discussing the subject. Assessing for abusive dynamics in a couple could include a discussion of how conflict is handled within the relationship. For example, some helpful lines of questioning would be: to explore how a couple fights, how tension is released and whether there’s an inequality of power in the relationship.
Individual partners within a couple could consider whether they feel intimidated, isolated or put down by their partner. Whether they notice themselves making excuses for their partner, or shifting responsibility for potentially abusive behavior to themselves, saying, “I caused it,” for example. These could be seen as indications of whether or not the relationship is verbally abusive.
So many of our attachment needs are tied up in communication. It’s important to assess how you’re responding to the attachment needs of your partner. In other words, what’s the dynamic between you and your partner? Is there shared responsibility in the relationship? Is there a reactionary pattern of blame, stonewalling or turning away from your partner in a time of need? Recognizing dynamics can be seen as a first step in working toward finding better ways to turn toward each other in a vulnerable and honest way, and to build trust and support within a relationship.