Communication in relationships

How do you think you communicate in relationships?

Communication in relationships is not always easy. Once we get past those early days of romantic ‘one-ness’, the way we communicate can literally make or break relationship. Often we can tend to believe that we are communicating just fine, and any problem must be the other person’s fault. But what message are you really sending? We are not generally taught to think about communication in terms of the message being sent to the other person, versus the message actually being heard. Oftentimes, a message conveys more than just words. It can be heavy with mood and accusations, and these are conveyed in things like tone and also choice of words, which can be loaded with history.

For example couple communication which begins with “you always…” or “you never…” is emotionally loaded, and will frequently end up in a fight that easily turns into the “blame game”. You might not even realise how you got there – again! 

By contrast effective communication promotes negotiation rather than conflict with your partner so that ‘good conflict’ can lead to positive relationship outcomes, regardless of the problem. Research shows that people who think about their relationship in positive terms, regardless of the level of conflict are more likely to enjoy a long lasting, happy relationships.

Strategies for effective communication include active listening and assertiveness. Both strategies tune into feelings, both yours and those of your partner. Active listening builds a healthy platform for communication based on respect and an appreciation of individual strengths and differences. It is more than just listening though. Much more. It is a way of sending a message to show you understand the intent and emotion associated with the words being spoken, and, most importantly, that you understand – really understand – your partner’s feelings.

Everyone wants and needs to feel understood. It is an essential part of what makes us human. When it doesn’t happen, we can feel angry, resentful and rejected. People who don’t feel understood have a tendency to repeat themselves and perhaps even shout, in order to ‘get through’ and feel understood.

So what is your partner really saying when they are shouting at you for being home late, and not being around to help with the kids? What is he or she feeling? Are they feeling angry and unappreciated? Overwhelmed perhaps? When someone is angry towards you the natural response can be defensiveness and reactive anger, which focuses on your feelings rather than understand what is happening for your partner. Instead of reacting from your own anger, try reflecting your partner’s experience, such as, “You sound really angry and stressed that you’ve had to deal with the kids on your own again”. The new message is not just about being “late again”, but that your lateness has had unwanted consequences – including valid negative feelings – for your partner. Chances are you partner may then have more emotional resources to support you too! Communicating effectively does not mean that you agree with everything your partner is saying, but that you acknowledge their feelings, and that you have really heard what they have said.

So how do you get to express your feelings and feel understood and heard?

Assertive communication means knowing your boundaries and having skills to express feelings and needs without becoming derailed by blaming and critical responses. Using “I” statements is a good starting point when trying to build healthy communications. Using “I” statements such as “I feel” can prevent the escalation of conflict. An example of this is saying, “I feel angry when you don’t take the kids to swimming lessons that I paid for.” Rather than “You deliberately never do anything I ask you to”. Or “I feel hurt and angry when you never tell me when you’re coming home late because I wanted to spend time with you”, rather than “You’re always late, and just do whatever you like and don’t care about me”. In both examples, the need for connection and support are expressed as the primary issue and there is clear information about what is causing the person’s distress. Importantly, it also provides information about the path forward, because the reasons for your partner’s distress are known, i.e., not feeling supported. 

It is possible to change the ways in which you communicate with your partner but it takes time, effort and willingness to learn and see things in a different way. The help of an objective third party like a psychologist can really help to guide you through the process.

Written by Suzanne Klotz (Psychologist) of Cause Effect Psychology

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