"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." -George Bernard Shaw
Relationships impact the quality of our lives more than any other experience. We are social creatures by design and evolution. Ancient indigenous tales and cutting edge neuroscience agree: we were created to be held in the embrace of relationship to other people, animals, the land, and the mystery we cannot see. Given the central importance of relationships in our lives, it can be confusing and painful when they become difficult. One of the biggest challenges facing any relationship is communication and the illusion that it has taken place.
We all grow up in families and cultures with overt and silent expectations about how things should go, who is responsible for communicating what, the underlying meaning of certain statements, value systems, and beliefs about what is good and bad. Each person is raised within a system of greater communication systems, social experience, cultural expectations, and consequences for certain behavior. When these lessons are taught using fear, violence, or threat, the messages become that much more difficult to risk telling. Even when the teaching is less overt, most of us struggle to know how to say what we want and need, feel worthy of it, and allow for another person's right to say yes or no to a request. It is no surprise that we struggle to effectively communicate our wants, needs, and desires to each other.
I often tell the couples I work with to imagine that there is a translator between them; translating what one person says into something else by the time it reaches their partner. This translator is programed based on childhood attachment, cultural messaging, social norms, wounds and negative consequences previously experienced. It can be shocking to realize that the person you love doesn't have a clue what you actually just said and when you fight harder to be heard, things often get worse. It can be frustrating to feel that your partner does not hear or understand what you are trying to share and easy to make the assumption that they do not care about you (in situations where your partner is being abusive, your assumption is based in reality and communication skills are not likely to improve the underlying problem). It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the lack of successful communication means that your partner does not care. Underlying most communication is the desire to connect and experience care; assumptions and negative attributions of your partner can create a no-win situation.
A major tenet of communication is identifying and stating assumptions. This can be difficult for a few reasons: it can be difficult to identify our assumptions, because they are automatic for us; it can be difficult to clarify what we want, because we fear rejection or unworthiness of what we are asking for; and we have been taught so many myths about communication (for example: if they love me, they will just know). Thank you, multitude of romcoms and everything else, for confusing us so profoundly.
In order to show this in practice, let's look at how to navigate a classic communication pitfall for couples: what to do on the weekends. In order to successfully navigate this experience, each person has to know: what is important to them (down time, unscheduled time, time with friends, social engagements, date night), priorities, underlying assumptions (ex. my partner was talking about seeing her friends, which means she is going alone and I will have time to chill out), unreasonable expectations (my partner will do everything I want to do this weekend), and silent communications (what you think you said out loud or directly that you did not).
Here are a few simple ways to address these pitfalls and build robust communication:
1. Tell the truth. For this rule, it helps if you and your partner have established safety in telling the truth to each other. An example would be: you want your partner to come to dinner with friends, but haven't said it outright, just implied or, more confusing, given the "choice." Telling the truth would state: I want you to come to dinner with our friends on Saturday night. Your partner still has the choice, but now they know where you stand.
2. Decide your priorities. Our partners cannot fulfill all of our needs and they are going to have their own needs, too. For example, let's say you want to go on a hike, have family dinner, organize the garage, and go to a movie and you partner wants down time, sex, to do the dishes, and to walk the dog. You will have to negotiate your priorities so that each of you gets your top individual and couple needs met.
3. Do not punish you partner for having needs. Again, if your partner has a pattern of abusiveness, they will likely say you are punishing them for having needs when in fact, you are expressing healthy needs and they are behaving in an abusive manner. I am talking about partners who show general caring and empathy to you. They will not be able to meet all of your needs all of the time and when we punish our partners for not meeting superhero status (which our culture tells us they should), our relationships will suffer.
4. Express gratitude and kindness. Be kind in your communication and share gratitude when your partner tells the truth, shows you care, or contributes to your life together in a positive way. Not sharing explicit appreciation for your partner's presence and efforts in your life will corrode a relationship and make it harder to recover from conflict and disappointments.
5. Express what you are feeling. Say what the actual feeling is instead of circling around it, asking questions, or implying what you feel. For example, if you feel that your partner does not care about you because they don't want to watch Netflix before bed, you can explicitly share this. The outcome might not be them watching tv with you, but they will have the chance to reassure you that they care about you and explain why they are not able to join. Loving partners do not punish each other for needing reassurance or expect each other to fulfill every want or need of the other.
Relationships are about navigation the constant tension between self and other. Some of us learn to do this gracefully growing up, but most of us have to learn by trial and error. Most of us need help along the way to build the dream we have for our relationship. Articles and books can be helpful to sort through things, but sometimes you may need more support or want to navigate challenges efficiently. That's where I come in. Contact me if you are interested in and individual or couple consultation.
For women in relationships with abusive men who need more information about abuse and the cycle of control, I recommend the book Why Does He Do That?