Communication can seem so simple: we tell each other things all the time. We speak, send text messages, and write notes. We tell each other we’re happy by smiling or angry by frowning. There are so many ways to express or share information! Especially in a relationship where you share your living space with another person, the idea of needing to communicate better might sound far-fetched. But the truth is that communication is about expressing and listening, not just speaking and hearing. It can be easy to become busy, tired, and distracted; we might rely on our proximity to our partner to keep us close and connected, but that isn’t the case.
Many people speak about how lonely it feels to be in a couple’s relationship with someone who doesn’t seem to understand them. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to fall into a relationship pattern where you feel this way. Feeling unable to articulate your needs or that you won’t be heard can be incredibly disheartening. On the reverse side, wanting your partner to communicate, but they struggle to do so, is hard as well. Over time, we may feel tempted to give up trying, either because we don’t know where to start or we don’t realize how bad it makes us feel. We may also avoid admitting that there is a problem at all, but if you feel that your communication is lacking, there is probably some investigation to do.
Here is what you are guilty of: you think your partner can read your mind. Yes, on an intellectual level, you know no one can read your mind, but on an emotional level, you expect it from your partner. “He should know me better…” or “She should know by now…” are common refrains when we resent having to explain something about ourselves that we feel is obvious. The truth is that communicating our needs and boundaries is one of the most challenging acts of self-care we learn to do in our lives and the most important.
How often do we expect the other person to make a move or be the first to say they are sorry? If only they didn’t say what they said, you two would not be
having this argument right now. Sound familiar? In taking the stance that you are never wrong, never to blame, you set up a wall around yourself that blocks any real and honest communication. You also prevent yourself from doing beneficial self-exploration. While there may be aspects of the relationship or your communication that your partner could do work on, denying any responsibility on your part is setting yourself up to have poor communication.
If you jump into a difficult conversation with your partner without any guidelines or structure, then you are setting yourself up to fail. This tends to happen because we falsely think, “Communicating shouldn’t be that hard” or, “If we are really meant to be, communication will be a breeze.” This is a trap. When couples think communication should be effortless, they devalue the importance of setting boundaries and following certain guidelines. If you and your partner can not identify specific tools you are using when communicating, then you are walking through your marriage blindfolded: you are doomed to crash into each other.
Communication in your couple’s relationship may be something you’ve always struggled with or a more recent issue. The good news is that you can employ the same tools to approach this problem if it’s been going on for years as you would if it just started a few weeks ago. You may rely on certain tools more or have to put more effort into certain tools, but they are still beneficial in improving the way you communicate with your partner.
No relationship will improve without genuine and raw honesty and communication. This means that you will have to admit what hurts you and what frightens and worries you. Vocalizing these emotions can feel deeply uncomfortable sometimes as if we are telling the other person how to hurt us. We can also struggle with our own pride in admitting any weaknesses at all. But vulnerability, with a person you trust, is actually an invitation to come closer. It is an admission of faith in the other person; someone who cares about you is going to feel honored to be given this sort of access, not inspired to use it against you.
Vulnerability isn’t just being willing and able to share your feelings; it is also being willing to apologize for whatever part you have played in the communication breakdown. Whether you have taken actions that have pushed your partner away, been inconsistent with your own communication, or actively placed some other barrier between yourself and your partner, there may be amends to be made on your part. Apologizing can be the most deeply uncomfortable thing we do in our emotional relationships; it is easy to get off track and forget why we want to apologize in the first place. Connecting with our priorities and sharing our regrets with respect and without doing further harm can be challenging but very rewarding.
If communication has broken down, it isn’t magically going to sort itself out. A willingness to make conscious plans to communicate may remind us of our desire for our partner to just “know us.” We want these things to be successful without having to work at them to convince ourselves that: our love is true, our relationship is meant to be, we have a strong connection with our partner, etc. The truth is that all relationships take work. Being willing to do healthy work is a good sign, not a bad one.
When planning to communicate, consider the following:
This means a time when neither person will have to rush to attend or rush away anytime soon. It means a time when both of you are able to
put away distractions. If you have children together, a good time is when they are out of the house or asleep; not only will you be less likely to be interrupted, but you will also ensure that they aren’t brushed off in their needs because you are trying to focus and that they won’t overhear any part of the conversation that might cause them stress or worry.
Sometimes communication and conflict resolutions are complicated by a lack of connection in the relationship. Spending quality time together can increase intimacy with your partner, which leads to more empathy, understanding, and flexibility at times of chaos and tension. You may think, “How are we going to be intimate when we have all of these issues to resolve?” It may seem like a distraction, but working on your connection is a foundation for healthier conflict resolutions. Quality time can also give you something to talk about to break the ice or to reveal topics of conversation you might not otherwise have. For example, seeing a show or a movie, attending a class or painting night together, provides multiple opportunities to learn about one another’s opinions or observations, or just to have a laugh or a cry together.
If you have children, you likely structure your schedule very differently than you did before you became parents. Like many couples we see here at our practice in Woodland Hills, you may have put all your energy and focus into your children somewhere along the way, and now you can’t remember the last time you put your romantic relationship first.
As important as it is to be willing to work on the relationship, it is equally as important to be willing and able to work on ourselves. This doesn’t mean that
we “take all the blame” for the breakdown in communication; ideally, our partners are willing to evaluate themselves as well. It means that we take responsibility for our part in everything. If a component of the conflict in your relationship stems from your unresolved past traumas, you have to be honest with yourself and your partner about it. It can be difficult to separate these issues from our current struggles because all of our experience in life is cumulative. This can make it challenging to realize when some of our fears or frustrations are not about what is going on in the present time. The fact is, we are all shaped by our environment. If you want to understand why you show up the way you are showing up in your couple’s relationship, take a look at your family of origin. Explore and investigate how you were raised, what sort of nurture you received (or didn’t). This sort of deep-dive can feel best in a supportive professional environment like therapy, where a neutral person can provide insight and support as you unpack your history and work towards the way you want to feel moving forward.
Improving communication in your relationship is a life goal without an expiration date. As long as you two are together, your communication will need to be protected and watered. Do not think, “Others have it easier” or, “It shouldn’t be this hard.” The fact is the longer you are together, the more communicating you need to do. Every couple goes through times that are more or less of a struggle; all relationships have natural ebbs and flows.
As part of your ongoing communication practice, you may want to attend therapy as a couple. This might be something you do more often as you are beginning to change the amount of effort you put into your communication. It may become something you decide to do at a set interval as you move into the future to ensure that there is always space for you to bring issues to the table.
Attending therapy as a couple is the same as attending therapy as an individual: it is not indicative of any wrongdoing or personal failing. It is a great way to remain focused on healthy boundaries, self-reflection and self-care, and taking mindful action. It is also not about pleading your case to a third party to determine “who is right and who is wrong,” although a therapist can help us to state our feelings in a way that helps our partner understand us better, and vice versa. Therapy is a most effective tool when used with good intentions, no matter what the issue is.
Ideally, even if we cannot communicate with our partners the way we want to, we are on the same page with them about our desire to share. Whether we come to that page individually or we express a need to our partner that they, in turn, wish to meet, agreeing to work on communication is a great first step. Any partnership is about friendship, respect, love, and teamwork. All of these aspects are strengthened by clear, honest, insightful, and thoughtful communication. However, that needs to be structured in your daily life or in the relationship you are in; the important thing is that you and your partner are both committed to working on it together and as individuals. No matter who first brings up the need to build stronger communication, it will benefit both of you to have it!
Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.
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