Couples Communication: Creating a More Satisfying Relationship – for Life

Part IV: If We Can Communicate at Work, We Can Communicate at Home

Many of the communication tools we have been discussing are not a matter of right ways or wrong ways, good or bad, but simply a matter of approaches that work vs. those that don’t. Think about effective communication in the workplace. When we’re frustrated at work, we take our time, collect our thoughts, ask our supervisor when would be a good time to have a discussion, and express our concerns as calmly as we can. Hopefully we even offer potential solutions. Every one of those steps is helpful in couples communication.

It’s not easy to manage our anxiety or frustration, but at work we do it anyway, because we know that any other approach is very likely to fail. We take a breath, and we take our time to think through how we want to deal with the problem, rather than just blurt out a complaint or an accusation. If we can do that at work, we can do it with our partner.

One of the most important considerations in communication is choosing the right time. Nudging your partner in the ribs at 3:00 am and demanding to talk about something that is bothering you is not the start of a productive conversation.

We don’t barge into our supervisor’s office or interrupt them when they are doing something else – we ask for a meeting time. In the same way, it’s hugely helpful to ask our partner whether now is a good time to talk. The answer to that question can be yes, let’s talk, or it could be no, but give me an hour, or any time up to 24 hours, to clear away other distractions.  This approach helps ensure a focused, clear-headed discussion. Importantly, it also makes us practice managing emotions by having to hold on to the issue until the agreed-upon time, rather than immediately spewing out emotions and demanding immediate resolution from our partner.

We’ll talk a little later about the idea of communicating not from our reactive, emotional child-mind, but from our adult, objective logical mind. That’s what we do at work – we try to communicate in a rational, reasonably objective way that recognizes we need to not put the other person on the defensive. And on a good day, we might even offer potential solutions to the work problems we bring up. How often do we do that at home?

It might seem simplistic to apply this work analogy to relationships, but the fact remains that communicating our needs responsibly and maturely is the only possible way that we might get what we want.

Couples Communication: Creating a More Satisfying Relationship – for Life

Part III: More on Effective Speaking 

Last time we talked about the importance of communicating in a way that encourages an empathetic and cooperative response, which helps build your relationship instead of tearing it down. 

So here are some more nuts and bolts on how to do that:  

Directly state what you want, need, or feel – don’t hint at it or manipulate the other – just come out with it. Instead of, “Why do you spend so much time on the couch? Don’t you think that’s bad for your health?” say, “I feel like going for a walk. Would you like to join me?” 

Keep it positive. Say what you want, not what you don’t want.  The statement, “When we go to your parents’ place, I don’t want to be left completely on my own with the kids, ” elicits  “I never leave you alone with the kids – you left me alone with them last time.” Instead, say, “I would like it if we could stick together with the kids when we go to your parents, and then maybe trade off watching them.” That elicits partnering in problem-solving.  

Make requests, not complaints: Not “Why can’t you help out more with the housework?”, but “I would like to try to work out a way to divide the chores more evenly.” 

Be specific rather than general; avoid “always” and “never”; avoid “should” statements. 

Avoid criticizing and sarcasm. Your relationship simply doesn’t need, nor can it afford, statements and actions that tear it down. 

I have had bosses who told me, “Don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions.” We can apply that at home. Rather than accusations and blame, come to each other with a softer approach, and offer a solution to what’s bothering you. Instead of, “You forgot to put gas in my car and I was late for work,” make it, “I really appreciate it when you put gas in my car, but when you can’t do that, can you please let me know so I can plan to take care of it before I have to go to work.” 

Stick to one issue at a time. If you ramble all over with a variety of complaints, then you are the prosecutor making the case that your partner is a terrible person. They’re not likely to say, “Yes, you’re so right, I’ll try to do better about everything in the future.” And the reality is that our attention spans go only so far, so a long drawn-out story will only lose your partner. Stick to the point, which should be about your own feelings.  

If your partner has been offended by your approach, ask them, “What’s an easier way for you to hear that?” You do have a legitimate concern to bring to their attention, but you need to learn how they can best be open to receiving it and responding constructively, instead of shutting down. 

When it comes to discussing bigger, more emotionally-charged issues, it’s helpful to set a time limit on the discussion. Speak to be heard, listen to understand. Keep the focus just on understanding how each other feels, rather than on persuading or building a case. You will be surprised at how quickly you can resolve an issue when you stop trying so hard to make your point. 

End well: I have seen couples in my office have a heated discussion, and then satisfactorily resolve the issue. But they had built up so much tension that they immediately started arguing about something else. I knew a couples therapist who, because of that tension build-up, ended sessions with a joke. A good belly-laugh is a wonderful way to dispel tension built up in the heat of a discussion. A good brisk walk works as well. At the very least, acknowledge to each other that you have done a good piece of work, and now it’s time to close it up and go do something else.  

These are nuts-and-bolts communication tools, but they are also exercises to build patience and mature self-control, which will help you to build a stronger, more satisfying relationship.

Couples Communication: Creating a More Satisfying Relationship – for Life

Part II: Effective Speaking

Working on your relationship is like a physical workout – it requires stretching emotionally and behaviorally.  It takes work, but not as much work as living in a bad relationship. The enemy is “more of the same” – we’re trying to do something new and different.  Working on your relationship is like working on your posture – you have to be very conscious of something that you normally take for granted.

So, as we talk about specific nuts and bolts, do’s and don’ts of communication, it’s important to understand the emotional stretches and growth areas that they are meant to reinforce.

Start by eliminating distractions when you talk so you can focus on each other. Turn off the TV. Face each other, and stay in eye contact. Use “I” statements rather than “You” statements.  When we hear sentences that start with the word “You,” we immediately go on the defensive, and try to get ourselves out of trouble. Instead, get into the habit of saying “I feel X,”  “I want X,” and “I feel X when you do Y.”

When our partner says “I feel,” they are making a statement about themselves.  “I “ statements reinforce that the speaker is taking responsibility for their feelings, as opposed to building the case against “you” the partner. Take the initiative to say where you are, rather than your complaint about the other’s behavior.  

Asking “Why” questions such as “Why did you…Why don’t you…” also puts people on the defensive, and they don’t result in satisfactory answers. Rather, they elicit defensive statements that can quickly lead to escalation. It feels safer to assume a superior stance by saying “Why didn’t you…” compared to the vulnerability of saying “I feel frustrated that you haven’t…” – but one of these is productive, and the other isn’t.

You need to take the risk of expressing yourself in a more vulnerable way. You will not successfully “make your case” to your partner if you are provoking a defensive reaction. If you want to be heard, you need to express yourself clearly but softly, emphasizing your own feelings, rather than your partner’s misdeeds. Presenting your feelings in a more vulnerable way – expressing the hurt and disappointment beneath the anger – enables you to “make your case” much more effectively. That is your best chance to be heard, and to get the loving response you are looking for.

Couples Communication: Creating a More Satisfying Relationship – for Life

Part I: “We’re Not Communicating”

Communication problems are the number one complaint that couples have about their relationship. They either aren’t communicating well, or they aren’t communicating at all. They seem to communicate perfectly well at work and in every other aspect of their lives, but somehow the couples relationship is different.

Why is that?

The answers reveal that we cannot work on communication issues in a vacuum. We also have to address the emotions underlying the communication — or the avoidance of communication.

When we learn to communicate more effectively, we are also learning to be present with one another in a calm and supportive way. We’re learning to manage emotions in a more mature way. And we’re healing the relationship so we can grow in deep and meaningful ways, together.

Over the next several weeks, I will be giving you the tools you need to communicate more effectively and more lovingly with your partner, so you can enjoy the best relationship you can.

Missing the message

I have seen couples who have difficulty clearly communicating the most basic information. At the end of a phone conversation, he believes he has communicated that he will be home several hours late, and she believes she heard that he will be home on time. Such a couple clearly needs help with the nuts and bolts of communication, and lots of practice reflecting back what they heard. An assessment for attention deficit disorder may be a good idea as well.

But for most couples, the problem is in effectively communicating about feelings or about topics that are laden with emotion. So the goal is more than just improved basic communication skills.   It’s learning to manage emotional states as well.  Couples communication exercises help us to do that.

Bottling and exploding

Some individuals have a hard time asking for what they want or need. They either don’t do it at all, leaving them feeling frustrated and unfulfilled, or they bottle up their feelings until they finally speak up in a sharp and attacking way. Out of the clear blue sky, their partner will hear, “You never take me out anymore.” That blaming, accusatory tone triggers a defensive response from their partner. The defensive response leads to escalation of the blaming and complaining, and soon they have a fight that results in hurt feelings, digging in, and even less chance of either partner getting what they want.

Better communication tools would help, but what is also needed is appropriate assertiveness skills and emotional self-control. Blurting out demands and complaints without regard for how they will be received is simply not a winning strategy in any area of life, including relationships.  

Angry pursuit vs. retreat and withdrawal

A common pattern is that one partner angrily pursues, while the other retreats and withdraws. That withdrawal triggers even more angry pursuing, followed by even more withdrawal. The more aggressive partner needs to learn to express themselves in ways that are easier for their partner to hear and respond to positively. And the withdrawn partner needs to find their voice and assert their needs and feelings.

Avoidance

And then there are the relationships where both parties are avoiding contact with each other. They each have walls built up, and they may have started living separate lives, even under the same roof. They need to learn to communicate in ways that feel safe and rewarding, instead of scary and pointless.

Do you see yourself in any of these scenarios? These are common problems, that have effective solutions. You just have to decide that it’s time to make a change and take the risk of trying something different.

Next time, we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of how you and your partner can start to improve your communication, and create a satisfying and rewarding relationship – for life.