By Catherine Topham Sly @insightandconnection
A note from Anna: Amidst the challenges of the last year, investing in our relationships with our partners may have slid down the list of priorities. In our household, we often have to remind ourselves that we are on the same team as we find ourselves bickering or feeling misunderstood. Catherine gives us some golden tips on how we can best approach these moments of tension and frustration.
We all know that communication is one of the secrets to a happy relationship. But it can be hard to know how to do it well. This is especially true when we didn’t grow up around great communicators (so that’s most of us, including me).
When you can’t get through to your partner it’s frustrating, stressful, and ultimately, miserable.
Most of the time, better communication means being a touch braver. We have to trust our partners – and ourselves – enough to take a risk and let them see a little bit more of us.
In my experience working with couples, our partners know way less about how we feel about things than we think. And stuff said in arguments usually doesn’t go in properly, because we can’t think straight when we’re angry. So if you haven’t talked about it calmly, you haven’t talked about it.
It can be scary to say how you feel, what’s worrying you, or what you need. It’s worth it though, to break those frustrating patterns of misunderstandings that only leave you feeling further apart.
1. Say how you feel (not what your partner’s doing wrong!)
Most of us here in the West were not brought up to pay much attention to our emotions. And everyone wants a partner who’s easy-going, right?
So what we tend to do is put up with things, often not fully aware we’re getting annoyed or upset. We often do this until something tips us over the edge and we blow. Sound familiar?
Then our perfectly valid complaints come out critical or blaming. And the trouble with this is that criticism just invites defensiveness.
Want to break that frustrating pattern of criticism-defence? This is how: notice and talk more about how you feel. Take the focus off what your partner has (or hasn’t) done. State the facts of the situation, as blandly as possible. Then tell them how you feel about it – using emotion words.
So instead of saying, “You never listen to me!” try, “When I’m saying something and you look at your phone, I feel rejected”.
Think they already know how you feel? Don’t be so sure. Humans are not as see-through as we think we are.
2. Share what you imagine
One of the most powerful changes you can make in your relationship is to get into the habit of saying the things you’re imagining.
Most of us do something like this. But a lot of the time they come out as accusations. So when you’re frustrated, you might say something like, “You don’t care about me at all!”
Where does this get us? More defensiveness. (Ugh.)
See if you can be brave enough to share your fears from a softer place. Try something like, “When you looked away, I imagined you weren’t interested in what I had to say… or even in me.”
Find the courage to let your partner hear about your worries. When they see your vulnerable side, they’ll feel more empathy and softness towards you. This will make them feel closer to you, and more willing to help.
3. Ask for what you need
How do you know you need to address something? An emotion tells you, whether it’s anger, frustration, sadness, or even excitement.
That’s how it works: feelings are messengers about needs.
Ask yourself, “What do I need?” whenever you feel a wave of emotion. (This will change not just your relationship with your partner but your life.)
We can’t always get all our needs met, at least at the same time. But until we acknowledge and discuss them, we’re missing opportunities to find solutions.
“I need you to give me your undivided attention for a few minutes” is a great start. “Because I need to feel like I’m important to you and you want to understand me” is even better.
It helps to follow up needs with specific requests, like “Would you be willing to…?”
If your partner isn’t used to talking like this, they might not respond how you want at first. Stay with it – a request is just the starting point of a negotiation.
4. Say ‘and’ not ‘but’
The simple habit of saying and instead of but can transform your communication. This might sound like verbal trickery. But it can actually create a genuine shift in how you and your partner look at things.
The trouble with the word but is that it often dismisses whatever came before it. And, on the other hand, is expansive.
If my partner says, “I’m exhausted” and I say, “But I need you to do this”, how will he feel? Like I completely invalidated his exhaustion.
If I say, “I know you’re exhausted, and we need to do get this done”, he’ll at least feel seen and understood.
That’s the point of a partnership, by the way: to make your partner feel loved, appreciated, understood, accepted, important, and close to you. The rest is just details.
5. Know when it’s better not to talk
You might think that a relationship therapist would recommend always talking about everything. Nope!
There are plenty of times when it’s better not to talk. If either of you is angry, hungry, exhausted, drunk, in a bad mood, or feeling insecure, or if the kids are in the room, wait.
Take a break whenever either of you feels overwhelmed by a conversation. If you keep getting wound up every time you come back to a topic, it can help to write to each other instead.
The thing about communication is that often less is more. If you bang on about things, your partner will stop listening. See if you can make your point in just a few sentences, and then leave it. Resist the urge to say it again a different way. Let it sink in.
Research has found that happy couples say five positive things to each other for every one negative. Try keeping track of your ratio. Increase the number of compliments and thanks your partner hears. See what changes.
Want to know the great thing about improving communication? Small changes can have a massive impact. Vulnerability is strength – watch what happens when you lean into yours.