Couples often say that they need to work on their communication. This is what is holding them back from greater happiness.
Kind of, but not really.
Ironically, couples who aren’t getting along often communicate very clearly: “I don’t want to talk to you about that.” “Why would you ask me that?” “There’s something wrong with you.” “You’re pissing me off.” They are very clearly broadcasting their hurt, disappointment, frustration, confusion, and/or anxiety. Message sent and received.
What may not be communicated as clearly is, “I want us to do better in this way,” and (perhaps most importantly) “here is what I think that we each need to do to get there.” Or maybe that productive message is lost in a lousy delivery. Or maybe the delivery was good enough, but the receiver got too defensive to really hear it for what it is.
Almost by definition, the problems that couples get stuck on are the ones that get them emotionally fired up—we resolve the other stuff with a rational discussion and move on. It’s the sensitive, scary, provocative topics that are the hardest to work our way through. To do so, it’s more important to focus on managing our emotions than it is to communicate clearly. Good emotion regulation can handle a bit of sloppy communication.
First, Listen Calmly
We are much more reactive to what our loved ones say than strangers, because our loved ones’ words and actions have much more direct effect on our lives and their opinions carry more weight. We may pick up a tone (or even assume there was one) when our loved ones say something to us. If we then respond with a bit of tone, they are equally likely to pick up on it and send it back, plus interest. And away we go into another fired up and probably unproductive argument.
As easy as it is to go down that path of least resistance, there are a number of points of intervention where we can avert disaster if we can do the harder work of managing our emotions and responding wisely instead. This involves holding back that immediate emotional response, especially if our partner didn’t hold back on their tone. It’s incredibly easy to fire back in kind and thereby up the ante. It’s much harder to hold our tongue and take a few deep breaths instead. Sometimes a few moments of silence are all it takes for our partner’s wiser mind to kick back in and then apologize for their initial response and replace it with something better. Don’t rely on these moments, but enjoy them when they happen.
Sometimes what our partner says isn’t overtly problematic, but one could interpret it to be a dig or a slight or just kind of jerky. Alternatively, we could give them the benefit of the doubt and take it as more neutral. There is very much a momentum effect here—when couples are struggling, they tend to round things down, including a bunch of comments or actions that could go either way, which then leads to a negative interaction which then “proves” the assumed negative intent. But when couples are doing well, they tend to round things up which keeps things on a good track. So put in that effort to give your partner the benefit of the doubt if it could go either way. You will both benefit from it. And fear not, your good efforts will be rewarded when your partner gives you some benefit of the doubt on the next one.
Sometimes what our partner says isn’t ambiguous at all—they’re being a jerk. Maybe they’re feeling triggered, maybe they had a bad day, or maybe they’re just being lazy and unfiltered and letting it rip. It takes real self-restraint to not fight fire with fire, especially when our partner is really being an ass. We need solid emotional jiu-jitsu skills to let that stuff go by without ruffling our feathers. Sometimes the conversation needs to shift from the topic at hand to how something was just said. “What’s going on with that anger?” or “I really need you to not talk to me that way.”
Sometimes our partner is saying something that makes us really uncomfortable and we feel triggered. Maybe what they’re saying is true but it’s hard to deal with. Maybe what they’re saying is dead wrong, but it feels insulting. It can be tempting to either fire back in an effort to defend ourselves, or to change the topic, or to bail out of the conversation. Or maybe we fall to pieces which may prompt our partner to take it back, so we don’t have to have that difficult conversation (except we both remember that it was said). It can be really hard to face these painful truths or at least truths as our partner sees them. Actually, these might be the most difficult conversations. The challenge is to calm ourselves down and stay present in the conversation, so that we can really talk about what is going on, beyond the surface.
Then Speak Calmly
It can be tempting to use a forceful tone, or anger, or guilt to really drive home a point. We may tell ourselves that there is no way that our partner won’t be convinced. Except often they aren’t. The problem with adding too much emotional heat to what we say is that it tends to trigger the person on the receiving end and they mostly respond to the emotion and not what is being said. So whatever we think we’re communicating is getting drowned out by the delivery. These are the times when it is much more effective (and powerful) to say something calmly and directly. Say what’s bothering you, acknowledge your partner’s perspective, own up to your contribution, and then ask for what you need.
Sometimes when we’re upset, we focus on the parts we’re unhappy with but aren’t clear enough about what we would prefer instead. No wonder then that our partner doesn’t know what to do better next time or doesn’t understand why it’s such a big deal anyway. Don’t make them guess but also don’t let them fool themselves into believing it’s no big deal if it is.
Even if your partner starts off with a bunch of attitude, remember that you’re making a choice to respond in a better way because you will get more of what you want. Don’t tell yourself that this is about respect and they can’t talk to you that way and therefore you need to fire back at them. Real respect is about someone being the bigger person and getting the conversation back on track to a productive resolution. If it needs to be you this time, then so be it.
Lengthen Your Fuse
Good emotional self-control begins with good self-care. This is all that New Year’s resolution stuff—get more sleep, eat better, exercise regularly, and manage your stress. I know, I know, it’s way easier said than done. But you will behave better in those heated moments if you have a stronger foundation. This will make it easier to communicate clearly what you really want, in a way that your partner can work with.