Every relationship has its problems and it is not realistic to think we will always have an understanding, agreement and an idyllic relationship with a partner. A relatively common problem is when one person expects that they shouldn’t have to express their needs clearly, but that the partner, if he or she loved them, would recognize and understand them. This, from my perspective, is usually the result of unmet needs from childhood and seeking a replacement for a parent – someone who would easily understand and fulfill our needs, and whose own needs would not be inconsistent with ours. But this is generally not realistic.
A healthy love means accepting disagreements, smaller incompatibilities and misunderstandings in communication, and making an effort to resolve them and come to an agreement. Of course, effort is needed on both sides, not just on one side, and even that is not always enough if there are significant incompatibilities regarding key life values. But let’s say you are relatively compatible – even then, big but unnecessary problems can grow out of established communication habits – learned from our early environment but often unconscious, which is why we do not question them.
There are people who, unconsciously and automatically, hide their true desires and opinions until they suddenly erupt with frustration, or their feelings for the partner cool down because they resent that their partner does not recognize their unexpressed desires and nonverbal signals. There are people whose communication style is unthoughtful, even aggressive, and they don’t even think about what it might sound like to someone else. There are some who just don’t feel like making an effort. All this is an unnecessary negative impact on a relationship that can be improved with a little perspective and learning – if there is the will to do so.
Partnership arguments often follow a fairly predictable path of complaints, accusations, generalizations, defensiveness, misinterpretations, exaggerations, and maybe even insults. This is what society usually teaches us while we are children. But with just a little more attention paid to communication, a lot of relationships can be preserved or repaired if the effort is honest and long-lasting.
Here are some of the most important rules for quality communication which improves the relationship and prevents accumulation of resentment:
1) Most of the anger and resistance in partner discussions is not the result of content, but of the way one talks: the tone of voice, the choice of words, facial expressions and gestures… Therefore, it’s often more important to communicate about how things are said, rather than what is being said.
For example, tell your partner what is bothering you about the way they communicate (eg, aggressive tone, rolling their eyes, or generalizations) and suggest what they could do instead. Or, to show good will, ask them what may be annoying in your own mode of communication. You will need to do this often – at first almost after every few sentences, because it is easy to break into old habits. It depends on the situation, of course – the more important the topic and the greater the risk of escalation, the more it is necessary to return to this rule.
2) Whenever possible, take some time to choose your response – avoid automatic expressions and anything reckless. By taking a short break to think, you prevent your limbic system from acting automatically, and enable your adult brain to get involved instead. It is better to spend a few seconds now to choose better words, than to later maybe spend hours and days to fix the consequences of the poorly chosen ones.
3) Communicate as much as possible through questions, such as, “When did you start feeling that way? How did you hear what I said? What does that mean to you? How do you want me to talk to you if I have a complaint?” This shows care and responsibility, avoids a defensive stance, and helps you and your partner better understand what’s going on.
4) Avoid assuming bad intentions and traits. This is one of the most important rules. The beginning of the end of a relationship, from my perspective, is when the partners start attributing to each other bad intentions and traits due to unwanted behaviors. Of course, it is possible that your partner has some bad traits – we all have them. However, much more common causes for attributing bad intentions to someone are a combination of poor quality communication, transference (the partner subtly reminds us of our parents – this is usually unconscious and much more common than most people notice) or simply having trouble changing deep-seated habits.
5) Some other things to avoid:
a) generalizations (you always / never …),
b) categorical statements (this is wrong, not true, not normal),
c) criticizing character instead of behavior (eg I wish you didn’t do this and that, instead of “you are so lazy / selfish” etc).
d) suppressing emotions until anger builds up enough to turn into anger or passive aggression.
e) and, of course, insults and similar hard words.
6) Never speak out of anger. Anger often provokes the desire to hurt the other person, so we are more likely to do all of the above things we should avoid. If the anger is too strong to contain, try the following: go to another room where you can be alone, and say aloud what you want to say to your partner – or better yet, record yourself saying those things. Once we hear the angry thoughts spoken aloud, we can more easily imagine ourselves as their “recipient”. Then we can feel how differently (usually more aggressive) they sound than when we imagine them in our own mind, through our own emotions.
To prevent angry communication, it is best to start talking about the problem while the anger or frustration is still mild, while you can still be calm and thoughtful, rather than waiting until the anger becomes so intense that it somewhat shuts off the adult mind. However, many people learned early in their childhood to avoid timely and clear communication, because the reactions of their family members were often discouraging.
7) Think about what the other person is saying and really try to understand.
8) (PARTICULARLY IMPORTANT) Pay attention to your tone of voice and non-verbal communication in general. Even if you choose your words carefully, if your body and voice give off annoyance or irritation, disinterest or disrespect, your communication is likely to be perceived as dishonest and manipulative. On the other hand, if your non-verbal communication seems friendly and calm, it will probably be easier for the other person to accept even more intense criticism than usual.
To avoid sending an unpleasant non-verbal message, you first need to deliberately calm down your feelings and create within yourself those emotions you want to convey non-verbally (eg respect, understanding, friendliness, compassion).
9) speak from honest feelings, but not the momentary and superficial ones. How to achieve this? Connect with emotions below the surface, those that are deeper than a defensive stance or temporary immature emotions. Usually this means finding and expressing your sincere wishes about the relationship. Ask yourself: what do I really want the my partner to understand? What message do I really want to convey?
10) You will probably need to repeat some of these things often and keep coming back to how you communicate rather than what. Usually multiple times in each conversation. Don’t expect results right away.
Expect to make mistakes, both of you. Prepare for some uncomfortable words and comments, even if you are both making an effort. The most important thing then is not to start with the accusations such as “you are doing it again, you’re not even trying!” Be patient. It is difficult to change one’s automatic habits.
Don’t expect your partner to change as quickly as you would like. The goal is to communicate, not manipulate or control. If your partner is different than you, they are entitled to be who they are. Partner communication means negotiations, not that our desires must be fulfilled. If you are too different to agree without control and manipulation – you may not be compatible, and it is no one’s fault.
Using these communication skills is not difficult in theory – but in reality, transference and age regression often get in the way (more on age regression here). It is important to recognize when that happens, so that we can bring ourselves back into the adult reality and perceive the real person in front of us, instead of reacting to our past. Recognizing and resolving the state of age regression enables us to be genuine when using communication skills, rather than pretending or forcing them.