February 14th has come and gone. And in the aftermath of overpriced roses and questionable chocolates, couples are left with the task of navigating lives and relationships that fail to follow the staid and predictable travails of most romantic comedies. What to do?
Open, honest and direct communication is a fundamental part of a healthy relationship. When people stop communicating, even minor stressors can produce a challenging disconnection with a partner. As long as healthy communication takes place, opportunities for change, growth and support remain. This doesn’t mean your relationship will be without its trials and travails, it simply means that you will have an effective tool for navigating the bumps that will inevitably rise in the road.
Strong communication is rooted in one’s own experience. When speaking with a partner, focusing on your own thoughts, feelings and sensations is paramount. Compare, “You never tell me what’s going on! You are so selfish!” to “I feel frustrated when I’m not sure what you are planning. I would really like to be a part of making this decision.” The first is all about the other “YOU are, YOU do,” etc. The second is about the speaker’s experience. “I am, I feel,” etc.
When navigating challenging times, a simple protocol that supports more clear and direct communication is as follows: I feel---- about ---- because---. For example, my partner and I are arguing over a bill left unpaid. We each thought the other had made the payment. Tempers flair until my partner takes a deep breath and says. Bryan, I feel angry about this bill being unpaid because this is the third time this has happened.
This is clear, simple and direct. It is a factual representation of what my partner is experiencing. I don’t have to agree with it, yet it is important that I acknowledge it. I look at my partner and say “I hear that you feel angry about this bill being unpaid because it has happened before.” My partner nods. If my reflection of her statement was inaccurate, here is the place where she can restate. For example, I might have reflected, “So, you feel angry because I screwed up again?” No, she would reply. “I feel angry about this bill being unpaid because this is the third time it has happened.” I now have a chance to reflect back what she said, hopefully this time more clearly. Now I have an opportunity to use the model in response. “I hear you. I feel ashamed about not paying the bill because I know it was my responsibility this month.” My partner would reply, “I hear that you are feeling ashamed about not paying the bill because it was your turn.”
From here we can continue the discussion, using the model when necessary or when emotions flair, and dropping it when we both seem to be tracking one another clearly. Awkward? Potentially. Clarifying? Absolutely! Give it a shot with your significant other and let me know how it goes!
Bryan Dieterich, MA, LPC