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.