Here’s a few more thoughts to keep in mind for couples who have difficulty communicating. First and foremost, the fundamentals of any relationship, trust and commitment, are at the heart of effective communication. With trust, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and we can express our true thoughts and feelings. With commitment, we approach conflicts with the interests of the marriage in mind rather than our own personal needs, so we tend to be more accommodating and better at listening.
This is an important point, because only if there’s trust and commitment can there be honesty and mutual respect, and these are essential for effective communication. Partners are more likely to listen and less likely to make hurtful or insulting comments. When equality and respect are lacking, we’re more prone to regard our own perspective as more important and not pay much attention to our partner’s feelings and opinions.
Openly expressing our thoughts and feelings is essential, but that’s only if we do it appropriately. When we’re upset, we may believe that yelling and using negative language is an honest expression of what we think and feel, and we have a right to behave that way. But in face we’re actually expressing hostility rather than honesty.
Let’s say our partner makes a joke at our expense. At the right moment we scream at them, “I hate when you say things like that!” That’s certainly an honest reaction, but it really doesn’t get to the heart of what’s bothering us. We may actually feel hurt or insecure by what was said, but rather than admit to feeling hurt or insecure, we lash out in anger. The truly honest discussion would focus on feeling hurt or insecure. When we take that approach, our partner has a better chance of understanding where we’re coming from and might feel badly about being hurtful.
It’s important to choose the right time for confrontation. While we might want to take on an issue as soon as it arises, there’s a better chance we’ll communicate effectively if we wait for our emotions to subside. When we’re angry, it’s harder to take in all the information presented to us and process it accurately. So, it’s possible we won’t hear or we might misinterpret important points our partner is trying to communicate. Additionally, when we’re extremely upset, we may have trouble expressing ourselves accurately or we may say things that only intensify the argument.
Sometimes, to soften the blow, partners will try to present a problem indirectly by making jokes or off-the-cuff comments. However, when you sugar-coat issues or try to present them too delicately, your partner may not take them seriously, or not pay attention to them at all. So, while remarks made in passing may allow you to sidestep a difficult confrontation, they may not get your partner to recognize that an issue is real and important to you. Frank and honest discussions, on the other hand, convey the seriousness of the issue and will get your partner’s attention.
Unfortunately, an honest and straightforward approach won’t mean confrontations will always be calm, or that your partner will be open or happy to hear what you have to say. For sensitive issues, it’s best to be prepared for a backlash. Your partner might feel attacked, or inadequate because he or she isn’t living up to your expectations or meeting your needs. If your partner reacts defensively and turns the conversation negative, the trick is to not rise to the bait. Remaining calm, supportive, and empathetic can limit the intensity of their reactions.
Within this vein, sometimes it’s the message itself rather than your style that can cause problems. You might behave perfectly and yet your message is still received with anger or resentment. Your partner may regard the issue as particularly irksome, or may consider your request to be above and beyond what’s reasonable. Under these circumstances, it might be helpful to use a quid pro quo strategy. If you have a request of your partner, be prepared to make concessions. Exchanges can actually be a good way to moderate conflicts so they don’t get out of hand. Your partner can justify giving in because he or she is getting something in return.
A frank conversation does not mean using honesty as a weapon. Communication problems can arise when we present an issue in a way that is hurtful, embarrassing, or humiliating. Brutal honesty is essentially beating up on your partner, and that’s destructive. Being sensitive to your partner’s feelings gets the point across, but with less risk of a counter-attack. If you keep in mind that the words you choose and the attitude you convey affects your partner’s feelings for you, that might provide some motivation for you to be honest, but also thoughtful and considerate.
It’s a good idea to pay attention to your spouse’s reactions as you present your side of the story. Watch their body language and listen to their words so you can gauge their emotional reaction and determine whether your message is understood and not taken as a personal attack. From their feedback, we can make real-time adjustments to what we’re saying and how we’re saying it. If, for example, they appear uncomfortable or are getting angry, we can tone down our own emotional expressiveness or choose softer words. The point is to keep your partner engaged and focused on the issue so that the conversation can move along to its logical conclusion.
Forgiveness is critical to resolving conflicts. If your spouse admits to a wrongdoing and apologizes, accept the apology, and if not, offer to forgive it nonetheless. If you plan to stay in the relationship, there’s no benefit whatsoever in holding onto anger after a conflict is resolved. Of course, if the same problem keeps coming up, an apology is meaningless. You have never really solved the problem, so it might not be an issue of communication style. However, barring repeated offenses, you will do a lot of good for your marriage by letting bygones be bygones.
On a final note, keep in mind that marital disputes are not about winning a contest of wills. They’re about maintaining and improving a relationship. When there’s a winner, there’s also a loser, and a loser never gets much enjoyment from the experience. Truly effective communication not only leads to resolution and avoids escalation, but, in the end, each partner feels their point of view was heard and understood, they feel good about each other, and the relationship moves in a positive direction. Ultimately, that’s the outcome that you’re looking for from your disagreements.
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