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Communication Between Couples
Clear and effective communication is vital to a close and loving relationship. When our ideas and interests are transmitted to others through empathetic communication, we’re more likely to get our needs met. The problem is that often we often think we’re communicating one thing, but are actually communicating something different. Or we’re communicating so vaguely that no one really understands what it is we’re trying to say.
Clear communication – however much you desire your ‘soul mate’ to truly understand you, your partner is not a mind reader and you cannot punish them for not knowing your wishes unless you express your needs
Effective – sometimes less is more. In other words you do not have to justify everything you say or launch into a complex explanation or story, in order to get your point across. Communication may be clear or vague, open or guarded, honest or dishonest – it can even be spoken or unspoken – but there is no such thing as not communicating. Whatever you say or don’t say will be picked up by your partner. If you want them to understand your needs it is better that you communicate effectively
Emotionally regulated – the more we pay attention to the emotions we put into our act of communication, the more we feel confident in what we say. In fact, virtually everything we do in the company of others communicates some kind of emotional content. Our body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and level of interest all communicate an emotional level of engagement to the perceptive listener
Understanding your own needs, maintaining personal boundaries and a willingness to compromise over things that do not fundamentally undermine your freedom and independence as a person help to show your partner you can be willing, open and flexible in your approach.
Understanding you own needs - however close we are everyone needs their own space to grow and thrive as persons. Being controlled, coerced or manipulated by others into doing things that are uncomfortable or distressing for us will only lead to fear, resentment and anger
Establishing your boundaries – intimacy is based as much on our ability to tolerate and enjoy emotional closeness, as it is based on our need to respect the boundaries, independence and separateness of others. Without it, we feel trapped, disempowered and unable to do things for ourselves as mature adults
A willingness to compromise – is not a sign of weakness or surrendering your needs; it is a necessary condition of mutual respect and reciprocation in a relationship. You do not have to compromise on your fundamental values or boundaries, if you can be flexible and open to change in other areas where you are willing to negotiate.
Scoring points, justifying your behaviour and disowning feelings will not help you build trust.
Scoring points – when empathy, compromise and intimacy is severely lacking it is easy for couples to fall into the habit of opposing each other at every turn, challenging each other over who is right and wrong, keeping lists of past misdemeanours and falling into entrenched positions. This may give us a sense of power, but does not lead to love and kindness.
Justifying your behaviour – leads to a defensiveness that our partners can easily pick up. It can be a habit learned in childhood as a result of critical caregivers, parents, teachers or authority figures, but does not have a bearing on what is actually happening in your current relationship. It stokes up paranoia and leads partners to feel that whenever they express themselves they are being perceived as attacking.
Disowning feelings – and attributing them to others, because we cannot accept them in ourselves can easily lead to us projecting blame and fault onto partners, where both parties may have had a part to play in a conflict. Owning your own part in the conflict and admitting to your feelings is more helpful in generating trust.
Tension and conflict is also a necessary condition of maintaining personal boundaries, maintaining independence and change. Everyone engages in conflict at some point even if this conflict goes unexpressed and each person withdraws or avoids face-to-face conflict. It is healthy to engage in a certain amount of conflict in order for a relationship to grown and change. Bottled up feelings need to be expressed. The trick is, expressing conflict in a manageable way, by acknowledging feelings like frustration, anger and resentment but not ‘acting out’ in chaotic ways, or engaging in full-blown abuse and violence.
Clear and effective communication has two parts – listening and expressing oneself. Each dynamic must occur for communication to be successful between two people. To become a better listener, you need to try some of these techniques:
Listen…don’t talk! Give the other person a chance to get his or her own ideas and opinions across. Listen to understand, rather than spending the time preparing for your defence. Put aside your own opinions, thoughts and conclusions until you’ve heard (and understood) what your partner is trying to say. Don’t interrupt; take turns. Let your partner finish what she or he is saying. If this is a problem and you typically interrupt a lot, place your hand on your chest and breath to remind yourself to keep quiet. Then indicate when you want to be heard or are willing to let your partner make an intervention. Try to express yourself thoughtfully and by owning your feelings and part in any conflict.
Don’t jump to conclusions, however much you think you know what your partner is going to say you cannot read their mind. And if you do make assumptions, it will lead them to believe you’re manipulative and controlling. If you don’t know how your partner feels or thinks, then ask them. Try to keep an open mind and try not to judge your partner. Don’t look for what is right or wrong in what your partner says. No one is perfect and we all make mistakes. Knowing that, means we are human – accepting there is room for error and that you can repair your mistakes in relationships, rather than holding onto blame and anger. Remember feelings are neither right nor wrong; there are just alternative versions of the truth.
Try to empathize with your partner, if you want them to understand, care for and respect you. Put yourself in your partner’s shoes as you listen. This shows you have common ground and mutual understanding, even if you disagree. And you have an equal right to feel what you're feeling even if it contradicts your partner.
Take a breath and reflect before you say anything in response to provocation or a difference of opinion, especially if you are experiencing an overwhelming or intense emotional response. Feelings are not facts, but they are essential in understanding why your partner is responding to you in certain ways. You can spend a lot of time arguing about the facts and completely discount your partner’s feelings. At the same time do not try to present feelings as facts e.g.’ I know you are wrong because my instincts tell me you are lying’.
Be aware of your non-verbal cues (i.e. body language, gestures, facial expressions). These may include shrugging shoulders (dismissive), tone of voice (critical), crossing arms (defensive), nodding (encouraging), avoidance of eye contact (distance), rolling eyes (patronising), facial expressions (smiling, frowning, smirking), foot tapping, etc. Tone of voice is key, as it can make the difference between being supportive and loving, or critical and patronising. Pause, consider and adjust your tone before you respond. Let your partner know that you heard what they said by acknowledging it & feeding back what you heard: e.g. “I think what you said was…” or “Do you mean that…”or “I understood you say”.
Be open to clairifying what you heard. Listen and respond with concern and understanding of your partner’s feelings. This is often all they may need to hear from you. Don’t give advice or try to fix things or rescue your partner, unless it is asked for. Be prepared to offer emotional support, empathy and problem solving if that is what your partner requests. Sometimes when you are feeling irritated or angry, it may be best to take time out. Tell your partner you will return to the issue when you have had time to reflect. Then you may write out your concerns in private and share them with your partner at a time when you feel calmer. Pick the right time and place – on neutral territory where you are relaxed and are both able to concentrate. You don’t want to bring up problems when you don’t have time to talk about them. Pick an occasion when you both have adequate time and choose a place without distractions. Don’t bring up issues when either or both of you are tired or hungry – usually everyone loses!
Don’t be deliberately nasty and abusive! This immediately puts your partner into a defensive position. State your feelings honestly without being sarcastic or insulting to the other person. Think about the impact of your words before you speak. Stick to the issue on the table. Don’t score points by bringing up previous grievances and dumping them on your partner to solve. Don’t bring other people into the discussion, to labour your point or as means of defence and alliance e.g. ‘even your mother knows how selfish you can be!’ Don’t try to figure out who is at fault. It is more important to talk about how to solve the problem, rather than assign blame which gives neither of you any room to move on. Avoid using absolutes or accusing language e.g. ‘You always start to…’ It sounds like an accusation or an invitation to fight (which it usually is!). Stick to “I” statements and own your own shit. Do not try to claim that your partner ‘makes you feel something’, because you response is your response. You have a choice. Try the ABC model for this type of communication:
• I feel A
• when you do B
• in situation C
For example: ‘I feel hurt when you criticize me when we are out with our friends.’
Abusiveness, acting out, throwing tantrums or withdrawing will only undermines you argument or attempt to reconcile. It will not curry favour or sympathy. Emotional blackmail will only lead to resentment as you partner will eventually feel manipulated. Avoid verbally abusing people and refrain from insults, put-downs or expressions of disgust. Think of your partner as a sensitive human being even if they are not in the habit of showing vulnerability. No one is immune to emotions and feelings. Attempt to speak with kindness and consideration and politeness, just as you would like to be spoken to. Include positive statements or compliments along with your complaints to show that you are not attempting to define the whole person as ‘wrong’, ‘unworthy’ or ‘not good enough’. This will soften the blow of any complaints or concerns and make your partner less defensive. Also try to refer to specific behaviours rather than making statements that define the whole person e.g. ‘it hurt last night when you lied’ rather than ‘you’re a liar’
Avoid controlling language or behaviours. Whenever one person seeks to be right, control the agenda or always be the good one, he or she may feel like a winner – but it is the relationship that loses. You can be right or you can be happy not both! There are no ideal solutions, be realistic. If problem solving is necessary, it should be one where both parties emerge as ‘winners’ and makes allowances for both persons’ needs. Try to meet those needs in the spirit of fairness, while supporting and respecting each other’s values. It is much more likely that a win/win solution can be achieved! Remember you only have control over changing yourself, not others. You don’t have to wait for your partner to change. You can take the first step without being weak, or losing out. Couples can feel empowered in solving their own problems together, rather than solving each other’s problems. Each time you and your partner work out a problem – cooperatively, respectfully, creatively – you strengthen the bond and reinforce trust.