Communication is absolutely essential
...yet it seems to be the most difficult part of relationships. Couples frequently come into my office saying they want “healthier communication.” But what does that really mean? All of these high-functioning, business-oriented, goal-driven couples communicate with one another by expressing how they feel and discussing ongoing issues. They regurgitate their problems over and over, reshape the way they say things, shift their perspective, and constantly try various ways to explain their side. So why isn't it working?
Communication is exactly what these couples are doing, but the bigger question is, what do they hope to accomplish? Learning how to communicate is too broad of an issue. Healthy communication is about narrowing the focus, taking a deeper look within each partner, and understanding how the couple interacts together. From a therapeutic perspective, it is about eliciting the underlying issues and emotions, gaining insight into each other’s needs, creating awareness of patterns, and changing the dynamic of the relationship. It has nothing to do with the English language and everything to do with the relationship itself.
Healthy communication is about more than what you say.
It’s easy to get caught up in the “content” of an argument. Who said what, when, and how many times the dishes haven’t been washed. We are so desperate to be seen and heard and valued, but what captures our focus and energy is being right. We think that if we can prove our point that our partner will “get it.” Unfortunately, while this is probably the most common method of communication, it is terribly unproductive. To efficiency-minded individuals, the focus of communication is usually information. The information exchange feels “productive.” Let’s talk about how to interrupt this erroneous pattern and really get heard in a conversation.
Healthy communication requires you to slow down.
Slow down and look below the request you are making. Whether you are talking about dishes or money or any other problem, conflicts usually are about issues below the surface. When you ask your partner to do the dishes, certainly they are wanting the actual chore done. However, they may also be hoping you care about your common living environment and that you want to contribute to making your home a comfortable space. When your partner nags about your spending, they may be feeling fear, lack, or like your priorities are out of sync.
Healthy communication requires you to be aware of your feelings.
Now that you have slowed down to look below the surface, turn your focus inward for a moment. What are you needing right now? How are you feeling? Is your body tense with rage or is your mind racing with anxiety? Identify a couple of emotions then use them to complete this sentence: “I feel… when…” You will also need to know the inciting piece for your feelings; try to be clear what it is that makes you feel a certain way without blaming your partner. For example, “I feel overwhelmed and attacked when you ask me to do the same thing three times in one day. This week has been really busy and I know you want the dishes done tonight, but I have been racing around trying to get things done all day. I feel angry and like I have to constantly prove that I am doing enough. I feel unappreciated when your focus is on my not doing the dishes instead of the errands I ran after working all day.”
Healthy communication requires you to listen.
Whether your partner is expressing feelings before or after you, do your best to let your guard down. Even if you can only do it a little bit, climb over the barrier and try to crawl your way into their emotional space. How are they feeling in this moment? If they aren’t able or willing to use the “I feel… when…” statements, you cannot force them to, but you can ask. Demonstrate compassion by telling your partner that you hear them and what you think they are feeling without being presumptuous that you already know. “I hear that you’re probably feeling overwhelmed and having a stressful week, too. I imagine that my not doing the dishes makes you feel alone in taking care of our home since I’ve been gone so much this week. Am I leaving anything out?” This kind of response diffuses an escalated partner; suddenly you two aren’t on opposite sides slinging accusations and demanding attention. You’re on the same side, digging into what is really going on.
Healthy relationship patterns + safely expressing emotions = healthy communication.
Ultimately both you and your partner need to be able to express your emotions and build a pattern of working together to resolve conflict. Healthy communication is about how you present your emotions and tune in to what your partner is feeling. When you realize that nearly every conversation exchange has a human with feelings behind it, your communication skills skyrocket. The safer you can be for one another, the easier it is to communicate directly and effectively. These skills take a lot of time and are often hindered by poor patterns acquired both prior to and in the present relationship. Couples often find that they trigger one another’s emotional baggage completely unintentionally and that can make these kinds of healthy communication habits even harder to acquire. If you two are not able to implement the above on your own, consider couples counseling to give you the opportunity to unpack the unhealthy habits and practice healthy communication in a safe place.
To learn more about the author, or to book an appointment with Jennine Estes MFT, visit her website at estestherapy.com or call (619) 471-7104.
About Jennine Estes, MFT
Think of me as your relationship consultant, I'm your neutral third party that can help you untangle the emotions and help you figure out what's really going on. I am a Marriage and Family Therapist in San Diego, CA. Certified in Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples. Supervisor. I write relationship and self growth advice for my column Relationships in the Raw. Creator of #BeingLOVEDIs campaign. MFC#47653