When working with couples, the first thing I assess is their communication, as this is usually a defining reason why they have walked into my office. Without clear boundaries and guidelines around communication, it is virtually impossible to dig into any issue. The WAY a person says something always trumps WHAT they are saying. In other words, STYLE always trumps CONTENT. Learning to communicate—and to communicate with care—may seem like a trite concept, but it is the cornerstone of a healthy relationship.
We learn to communicate from our caregivers. Since we were each raised differently, our communication playbooks are all different, too. When two people enter into a relationship, there are usually different playbooks in action fighting to emerge as THE playbook.
If, for example, you grew up in a family that was loud and boisterous, you likely learned to do one of two things: become loud and boisterous or avoid loud and boisterous. The way you adapted to that communication style became a part of your communication playbook.
My goal is to help you and your partner come up with a common, collaborative playbook that feels good for both of you. Here are just a few suggestions and recommendations:
- There MUST be care in your words. This is a deal-breaker. Figuring out how to speak with care when angry, sad, shamed, or guilty requires vulnerability and accountability. It takes mindfulness and practice.
- Overt no-nos: yelling, name-calling, bullying, threatening, and attacking.
- Covert no-nos: nagging, pouting, stonewalling, lying, being a martyr, and zingers.
- No sarcasm. Sarcasm is a passive-aggressive (indirect) way of saying what you feel without being clear and direct. The Greek translation for the word sarcasm is “tearing of the flesh.” It is hurtful. Being funny and using sarcasm are two different things. If something is funny, you both laugh. If it is sarcastic, chances are only one of you is amused.
- Don’t start talking about an issue until you have “contracted” with the other person. Too many times, you may begin delving into an issue before the other person is ready, able, and available. It may be as simple as, “I would like to talk about ‘X’; are you available?” Contracting sets the tone, creates intention from both parties, and lets you know you’re both present and attentive. If, for example, you want to talk in bed at night, be certain the other person is agreeable and not falling asleep. Setting a time limit is another aspect of contracting. If it’s not a good time to talk, in addition to saying so it’s a good idea to provide some alternative time options. This page contains at least one affiliate link for the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, which means GoodTherapy.org receives financial compensation if you make a purchase using an Amazon link.
Having rules and guidelines both partners have had a hand in shaping allows for more accountability and collaboration, which can increase satisfaction levels when working through issues.
- If a conversation gets heated, take a time-out. If you take a time-out, it is your responsibility to say when you will come back to finish the conversation. Leaving a conversation without a restart time may be interpreted as abandonment and lack of care. If someone needs a time-out, respect it, stop the conversation, and don’t push or punish. Knowing there is a restart time may allow you to look at what has happened to get the two of you into a time-out situation. Both parties should ask, “What is my part in the dysfunction in this conversation?” and be willing to own it when you resume. It’s much easier to point a finger at the other person, but does nothing to get closer to solutions.
- Listen. You will know you are listening if you can tell the other person what they just said. If you are evaluating their content and waiting for your turn, you aren’t listening. Think of listening as the most caring thing you can do for your partner. Put your needs on hold. Try to gain an understanding of their perspective. Communication is not about convincing. Listening is an act of love.
- Remember, you are on the same team. When teammates have conflict, the energy of the conversation is much different than when adversaries go at it. Again, it goes back to care with your words. Sometimes I will ask, “Would you talk to your next-door neighbor the way you are talking to your partner right now?” This is actually a parenting tip from Foster Cline’s book Parenting with Love and Logic, but I use it frequently with couples. It’s called the “good neighbor policy” and is an effective and easy way to help reset communication during a conflict.
These are just a few suggestions for helping couples create a common communication playbook. Having rules and guidelines both partners have had a hand in shaping allows for more accountability and collaboration, which can increase satisfaction levels when working through issues.
Cline, F. (2006). Parenting with love and logic. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress Publishing.
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