Good communication in a relationship is a solid way to make it to your 50th anniversary. So, what happens when you and your partner are on completely different pages (and maybe even living in different books)? What do you do when your communication styles are so different that it’s affecting your ability to enjoy each other?
Unfortunately, we aren’t taught healthy relationship dynamics in school. Sure, we understand geometry and how to build a sentence, but empathy, compassion, active listening, and other traits that make communication easier go by the wayside. Therefore, we grow up sometimes not even understanding our own emotional world, let alone someone else’s.
And when worlds collide? There can be some problems.
Healthy versus unhealthy relationship communication
Understanding your partner may feel difficult at times. After all, they are a whole different human being than you and are having a completely unique experience of the world. With two different perspectives to be communicated, you must both be able to listen to the other and formulate your own way of expressing your wants and needs. This is where honesty and trust come in handy.
It is helpful to know some of the main points of healthy relationship dynamics, versus unhealthy ones:
- Complimenting (versus criticizing)
- Forgiveness (versus holding grudges)
- Appreciation (versus resentment)
- Respect (versus disrespect)
- Compromise (versus making demands)
- Encouragement (versus insulting)
- Trust (versus distrust)
- Support (versus competing)
- Communication (versus holding secrets)
- Validating (versus blaming)
Now, this list is a wonderful model, but it doesn’t happen in every relationship–especially not your most intimate ones. When your heart is on the line, sometimes you’re not on your best behavior. Our nervous systems are hardwired to protect us. So when you think your partner is angry with you—or when you can’t figure out why they’re being silent—you might launch yourself into a fight, flight, or freeze frenzy. It is then that we must have great communication skills to get our point clearly and succinctly across.
It’s important to know the keys to good communication before you try to have difficult conversations. First, tend to your own emotions. We hear the phrase “process your feelings” a lot nowadays, but what does this mean? In short, it means don’t avoid looking directly at your emotions (such as anger, sadness, jealousy, and so on). Instead, feel how it is being expressed in your body. If you are angry with your partner, you may notice a fight or flight reaction that has your heart beating fast. Maybe your mind is spinning stories or thoughts that are contributing to you getting even more wound up. Try to witness all the reactions within your body, without expressing them through negative behavior patterns. You can also take some time to figure out what is underlying the strong emotions you are experiencing.
Then, you can think about how you want to approach your partner. Do you want to give them space (or take some for yourself)? Do you want to sit down and have a calm conversation? Keep in mind that trying to communicate effectively means being open and honest, but with a heaping dose of empathy and compassion. Once you know how you would like to proceed, think about how you want to speak your truth.
Developed by Marshall Rosenberg, this method of communication helps you to say what you need to clearly and directly. By speaking without blame, but instead from a place of authenticity and compassion, it is easier to diffuse arguments or get to the bottom of the issue. Non-violent communication uses four components: observation (or observing how you are feeling without judgment), feeling (distinguishing feeling from thought patterns), needs, and requests. These components are then rolled into a template that is easy to follow:
- When I see that ________
- I feel ________
- Because my need for __________ is/is not met
- Would you be willing to ____________?
You can learn more about words that are helpful to use within the context of non-violent communication (as well as the larger process) by checking out the Center for Non-Violent Communication.
Like non-violent communication, “I” statements are another great way to speak directly without blaming or criticizing your partner. Furthermore, you are taking responsibility for how you feel. For example, if your partner snaps at you because you can’t stop what you are doing to help them, you can take some time to process your emotions, and then explain how you feel using an “I” statement: “I felt angry and hurt when you yelled at me this morning.”
When you are in the throes of an argument with a spouse or partner, it can feel difficult to get the ground back under your feet. However, it’s important that both of you clearly communicate your feelings and needs without blaming or hurting. Becoming better communicators can make a world of difference in how you are able to relate to one another’s experiences of the world.