How Words can Unintentionally Destroy a Relationship



Not all words are treated as equal. We process their meanings at different rates. You know how some people get a joke right away and others just force a strained chuckle with a confused look on their face? Some might even get it the following day, and some don’t get it at all. Jokes are often a play on words combined with nonverbal cues, such as tone of voice or facial expressions.

Another example of wordplay is texting. Texting is the latest fad for communicating and the Emoji serves as a nonverbal, visual cue. The Emoji lets you know what mood the person is in and CAPITAL LETTERS and !exclamation points!  or bold words let you know something is important or exaggerated.

But when we actually dig back to our roots and communicate face to face, imagine hearing each word without any nonverbal cues. Imagine being deaf to vocal tones and blind to facial expression…if all words were treated equal, life would be pretty damn monotonous. But for someone with a slow processing speed, or Nonverbal Learning Disability there are no cues.

I’m going to share a personal account of how words unknowingly damaged a relationship between my daughter and me.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have listened to what they said about you” (spoken to me by my daughter). The words packed a familiar punch and my heart sank a few inches. A wave of relief and sadness hit me at once. I’d waited years to hear her say what I already knew. Carefully planted seeds festered into weeds of resentment. She believed I was to blame for all that was wrong in her life. 

We didn’t realize how impressionable she was. We tried to protect her from the ugliness of divorce. But we didn’t know her mind was processing information at a different speed than most. She didn’t understand sarcasm or verbal cues. She took words at face value. Figurative language was a foreign concept to her. 

Her dad’s sarcastic sense of humor is darkly funny, albeit shocking for some. He probably could have been a comedian, but chose the political route instead (I know, I know politician/comedian…not so far-fetched). He’s an intelligent man with a flair for words… and drama. Only recently did it hit me that his communicative approach integrated with her unique style of learning caused an explosive reaction, aimed directly at me. The continual joking and sarcasm had an effect…one he didn’t even realize. An effect so deep it slowly began to sever a relationship between mother and child.  

“Maybe I shouldn’t have listened to what they said about you growing up. Dad and XXX (my ex boyfriend) said things about you, and I shouldn’t have believed them.” 

Both of my ex-es had one thing in common; they criticized me playfully, disguised as teasing. I just laughed it off. I had no idea she was taking their words literally. None of us knew. Until now. Until receiving her psychological report and hearing about the pent-up resentments she felt. The things she described weren’t true. They were exaggerations. For example, if there was a comment made about me drinking too much, I became an alcoholic in her eyes. If she heard someone talk about my college years, she believed I was still that person. When her dad and I went through a divorce we were angry and hurt. She believed things said out of context and learned to disrespect me; to dislike me as a person.

She vocalized her anger but I didn’t understand. I just didn’t get it. How could my daughter dislike me so much? How could she be so blatantly disrespectful when all I ever did was attempt to earn her acceptance? It seemed like the harder I tried, the more she pushed me away. It felt like a lost cause and IT HURT. I couldn’t do anything right and I couldn’t understand where I’d gone wrong. 

Fast forward ten years and I FINALLY understand. I never believed her father had intentionally turned her against me. He loves her too much to do that. No, it wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t malicious. He thought she knew he was joking. Every snide comment or judgment he (or anyone) expressed verbally became reality for her. When I got pissed with my boyfriend and said something flippant, she took it as gospel. I didn’t understand why she was so hard on him. But now I know, if I vented a specific incident out of anger she considered it a permanent character flaw. 

I wish we’d known then what we know now. Had I only followed the if you can’t say something nice don’t say it at all rule it would’ve diminished a lot of anguish in her mind. 


But now I know. When I speak to her I need to consider her interpretation. As humans we assume processing information is the same for everyone. We don’t consider how our words affect others. What one might think is funny could very well be hurtful to another, or taken out of context. Words are powerful weapons, and in my situation they damaged the most important relationship in my life. For years I’ve second guessed myself as a mother. I knew I had tried my best but it just wasn’t good enough.

I finally have the knowledge to repair a damaged relationship. It was never anything I did; it was always something someone else said. Misconstrued words severed a precious bond because we didn’t understand the power of misinterpretation. Knowledge is power in this situation and words are potential weapons of destruction if not carefully chosen.    



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