Communicating in relationships
How do you think you communicate in relationships?
Communication in relationships is not always easy. Once we get past those early days of romantic ‘one-ness’, how we communicate can – literally – make or break the future of those involved. We also tend to believe that we’re communicating just fine, and any problem must be the other person’s fault or failing. But what message are you really sending? People are generally not taught to think about communication in terms of the message being sent to the other person, versus the message actually being heard. Oftentimes, a message conveys more than just the words, such as mood and accusations, and these are conveyed in things like tone or choice of words, and may have quite a bit of history behind them. For example, couple communication that begins with “you always…” or “you never…” (insert choice of ‘issue’ here) will frequently end up as a fight, and can easily turn into the “blame game”. You may not even realise how you got there – again! In contrast, effective communication promotes negotiation, rather than conflict, with your partner, so that ‘good conflict’ can lead to positive relationship outcomes, regardless of the problem. Research shows that people who think about their relationship in positive terms, regardless of the level of conflict, are more likely to enjoy a long-lasting and happy relationship.
Techniques for effective communication include active listening and assertiveness, both of which enable you to tune into feelings, yours and those of your partner. Active listening builds a healthy platform for communication based on respect and an appreciation of individual strengths and differences. It’s more than just listening though. Much more. It’s a way of sending a message to show you understand the intent and emotion associated with the words being spoken and, most importantly, that you understand – really understand – your partner’s feelings. Everyone wants and needs to feel understood. It’s part of what makes us human. When it doesn’t happen, we can feel resentful and angry. And people who don’t feel understood have a tendency to repeat themselves, perhaps even shout, in order to ‘get through’ and feel understood.
So what is your partner really saying when they are shouting at you for being home late again and not being around to help with the kids? What is he or she feeling? Are they feeling angry and unappreciated? Overwhelmed perhaps? When someone is angry towards you, the natural response can be defensiveness and reactive anger, which focuses on your feelings rather than understanding what’s happening for your partner. Instead of reacting from your own anger, try reflecting your partner’s experience, such as, “You sound really angry and stressed that you’ve had to deal with the kids on your own again”. The new message is not just about being “late again”, but that your lateness has had unwanted consequences – including valid negative feelings – for your partner. Chances are that your partner may then have more emotional resources to support you too! Communicating effectively does not mean that you agree with everything your partner is saying, but that you acknowledge his or her feelings, and that you’ve really heard what they have to say.
So how do you get to express your feelings and feel heard?
Assertive communication means knowing your boundaries and having skills to express feelings and needs without becoming derailed by blaming and critical responses. Using “I” statements is a good starting point when trying to build healthy communication. For example, “I” statements such as “I feel…” can prevent the escalation of conflict and help you stay focused on what’s happening for you, rather than blaming your partner. An example is, saying “I feel angry when you don’t take the kids to swimming lessons that I paid for,” rather than “You deliberately never do anything I ask”. Or “I feel hurt and angry when you never tell me when you’re coming home late because I wanted to spend time with you”, rather than “You’re always late, and just do whatever you like and don’t care about me”. In both examples, the need for connection and support are expressed as the primary issue, and there is clear information about what’s causing the person’s distress. Importantly, it also provides information about the path to remediation, because the reasons for your partner’s distress are known, i.e., not feeling supported. The alternative responses in both examples are blaming and critical, and neither of them convey understanding or invite connection. If you address your partner’s feelings about being left alone to cope with the kids, you’ll have a much better chance at staying connected, rather than feeling criticised and misunderstood (after all, it may not be your fault that you were late)!
Conflict in relationships – all relationships – is common and, despite how it can feel at times, it can be healthy and adaptive. Expressing your thoughts and feelings, and letting your partner know that you understand his or her feelings can turn a potential argument into an opportunity for acknowledgement and connection. We know that it may not be as easy as it seems here because of the emotional aspect. We get that. We also know, however, that conflict can be a source of important information about what’s really going on in a relationship, and not just the cause of serious distress. Talk to your psychologist today about how to improve your relationship communication and get things going in the best direction for you!