What would you say are the pillars of a good relationship? What makes the foundation strong? Most of us might say trust, respect, and shared values. We might also want to add honesty and compatibility. Last but not least, a key player in a good relationship always comes down to good communication. Through strong, direct, and respectful communication, an understanding of one another can develop and grow. This understanding is how we learn that we can rely on the other person; there is safety in knowing, for the most part, how a partner will respond to issues that matter to you. Good communication also fosters respect, as we feel heard and validated through our partner listening to us and trusting us enough to share with us. The better the communication skills, the more likely you are to confront issues that arise as a team. Where we make mistakes is in thinking that speaking about something is the same as communicating about it.
What causes communication issues in a relationship?
I once read that women use language (aka communicate) to express their feelings, and men communicate to solve problems. This can obviously create strife in heterosexual
relationships. In my therapy practice in Woodland Hills, we see a similar trend where one partner wants to communicate simply to share their pain and struggle, while the other one, aka the listener, quickly feels the pressure to “solve the problem.” This creates tension as the couple misses the opportunity to provide emotional support to each other.
This common situation illuminates what is at the core of all communication issues: approaching the situation with different and/or conflicting goals. When one person wants to be heard, but the other person’s goal is to fix the problem, neither can fully grasp what is being said and what is needed. While each person intends to be there for the other, the fact that the goal isn’t the same ends up causing strife and disagreements. The person who just wants support doesn’t feel listened to and understood when the other partner tries to fix the problem, and the fixer partner doesn’t feel listened to and appreciated when their solutions aren’t what the expressing partner wants.
These issues often come down to making assumptions rather than being curious about the other person’s point of view, orienting yourself there, and facing the problem together. This can lead to a further breakdown in communication when partners stop attempting to communicate or give up on listening actively or both. Couples can begin to engage in a battle of wills that leaves both people isolated and frustrated.
What happens when you and your partner have communication issues?
It is common for all relationships to go through periods where communication is tested. In these times, or with ongoing communication issues, there is a common dynamic that occurs. Inevitably, one person withdraws, and the other one chases. In other words, one gives up, and the other pushes. One cries a lot, so the other one withholds emotional expression. One over apologizes, the other could not say “sorry” if their life depended on it. We are always seeking balance in everything: our bodies exert constant effort to maintain homeostasis, our minds do it to make sense of things, and we behave in ways that seem to compensate in interpersonal relationships. According to Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotional Focused Couples Therapy, these are called the “dances” we have in relationships, and the goal of couple’s counseling is to identify these dances that happen where the couple has been stuck in an unhealthy and vicious cycle that they can’t get out of. This dance breeds resentment in the person who withdraws for being chased and the chaser for having to do so.
3 Things To Do When Communicating With Your Partner
1. Talk about your feelings, not how you feel your partner is to blame:
Inviting a partner to approach the problem with you is far easier if you speak for yourself rather than assigning the intention to the other person. For example, if you feel frustrated that you are consistently
responsible for keeping the to-do list up to date, “I feel overwhelmed by all the tasks to keep track of” is more neutral than “There’s a lot to do, and you’re not helping me.” This doesn’t mean you cannot express how you feel about your partner not pitching in. “I feel very tired and stressed keeping track of these things on my own” is a feeling statement. “You don’t ever help me with this list” is a problem statement. Effective communication is direct and focused on solving a problem, not solving the other person. This means making clear what the problem is so that each one of you has an opportunity to approach it in the best way for your individual styles. Not all styles are as compatible as we would like them to be, but accepting and permitting them is a good first step.
Often, when we take the time to identify the problem, we can find neutral solutions. Assuming your partner cares about your well-being, a statement like, “I don’t have enough time in the day to get in a workout lately” should inspire problem-solving, not defensiveness. Subsequently, “How do we find more time for that?” is a way you can both approach this problem. If your partner could pick up a chore or two that would free up your time, that would seem like an obvious solution. (Unfortunately, you may be faced with a partner who doesn’t do any housework but throws up their hands about how to solve your time crunch. I hope that is not the outcome.) The way you pose that same question might work better if you said, “I’m struggling to make time for my workouts lately, and my workouts help with my happiness. Do you think we could look at our schedules and list of chores and see if space for it can be made?”
Even if you look at a situation and decide that your partner is literally the problem (a common complaint is a mental load and household tasks), you can still express that problem through feelings. “I feel like I don’t have any free time because I’m always doing chores, and I am fried.” To you, it may seem obvious that the problem is that your partner isn’t doing any chores. Your partner, however, may look at the list of tasks and find that some aren’t important or even known to them. You may learn that laundry, dishes, cleaning the toilet, disinfecting the kitchen sink, and sweeping once a month is what your partner deems necessary to keep the house safe and cozy. They might not have any idea about any other tasks that are done, and they might not see the value in doing them. Through this conversation, you learn that your partner isn’t refusing to help you, but rather, you and your partners have different household standards, neither of which are “wrong” or “right,” but more the result of how you were each raised.
2. Put the problem in front of you, not between you:
When you put the problem in between you, you start to blame the other person. This causes disconnection and distance between you and your partner. When you put the problem in front of both of you, you remember that you and your partner are on the same side. You two are a team trying to solve the problem. It’s you two vs. the problem. The question should always be, “How can we solve this together?” instead of “What are you going to do to fix this?”
Understanding where you are coming from is important before addressing the issue. You know how you feel about the situation, and you may be blaming your partner for it. Whether or not your partner is to blame, they probably won’t respond well to being told that they are. Again, this is not to say that you cannot be direct about a partner’s words or actions when they upset you. This is simply a way of determining the intention of your partner by inviting your partner to discuss the situation. Depending on what you discover, the two of you may have a very simple conversation ahead of you or a not-so-simple one.
For example, if the problem in your relationship is that you don’t feel like you spend enough quality time with your partner, then that itself is the problem to speak about. However, we are most likely to say, “It seems like you don’t care about me,” because that is the conclusion we are drawing from a place of hurt feelings and emotion. If you were to say that to your partner, they would probably find it quite hurtful. You might also get a whole list of ways that your partner “proves” how much they care, but spending time together isn’t on the list. From there, you would be forced to say, “But you don’t spend enough time with me,” as a response to a big list of ways your partner claims to show you love and affection. This is a recipe for defensive conversation as opposed to effective communication. From the get-go, stating, “Lately, we don’t get to spend much quality time together; is there a way to fix that?” is direct and to the point. It doesn’t accuse your partner of not putting effort into the relationship, falling out of love with you, or any of the other fears that you have probably unearthed while worrying about the issue. It states the problem. If your partner’s response is, “I actually feel like we spend more than enough time together!” then you may have to brace yourself for a totally different conversation. Again, you would be returning to your own needs and boundaries to determine if you can accept a relationship where you’re not spending enough quality time with your partner.
3. Remember: do you want to be right, or do you want to have harmony?
This does not mean that you just say you’re wrong all the time in order to end any debates or disagreements. What this means is that your lived experience has created your point of
view, and your partner’s has created theirs. When communicating with your partner, the goal is to be clear in your statements and solve whatever problem is at the center of the conversation. If you spend your energy trying to change your partner’s mind or force your partner to see a situation the way you see it, you aren’t seeking solutions so much as the moral or intellectual high ground. And how satisfying is it, really, to be able to say, “I told you so,” or “Gotcha” when it is in response to an outcome that nobody really wants?
To create harmony in a relationship, we have to trust that the other person is coming into any situation with the best of intentions, and we have to display the same. This means that even if you are trying to communicate about something that is very difficult, you know that your partner has your best interest at heart. This provides safety and security in which to express your emotions and perceptions without worrying that the other person is apathetic toward or resentful of them.
This doesn’t mean the end to disagreements; that is impossible to do if you are both being open and honest. You can harmoniously debate an issue. You can seek a resolution while expressing your feelings and listening to how the other person feels.
If you reach a point where you are communicating solely to convey that you were right about something, to make a point that your partner doesn’t listen or take you seriously, or to “gloat,” then you are not really dealing with communication. Likewise, if you feel that this is your partner’s intention, then it is no longer about communication between the two of you. You may want to seek individual or couples’ therapy to get to the root of the issue, whether it’s competition, insecurity, revenge, or something else that is motivating one or both of you.
Communication is a journey, not a destination. It’s not like one day, you are magically perfect at communicating, and then you never have a misunderstanding again. Remember that there can be many life events that can be challenging and weaken your communication skills. These are the low points of the journey: grief, burnout at work, stressful deadlines, and opposite schedules. It is important to always update your communication skills to meet the challenges you are facing and the needs of your relationship as you continue to share this life together. There is a reason we use the word “partner”; you two are supposed to be a team. Healthy and open communication are how the team creates its best environment to succeed together.
Here at Embracing You Therapy, the goal is to create a non-judgmental, supportive, and loving safe space to make you and your partner feel comfortable. With Couples Counseling, It is possible to learn relationship skills that will help you and your partner be more vulnerable, emotionally open, and flexible.
Contact us today for your complimentary 20-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.
Meanwhile, check out our blog library for more readings on couple’s relationships!
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