By Kara Hoppe, MA, LMFT
PACT Level 2 Therapist
As a couple therapist, I’ve learned that relationships are like fingerprints: each one is unique. Even though each couple reaches out for couple therapy for a variety of reasons, they all, at some point during our initial consultation, ask for the same thing – communication tools.
Communicating with your partner can be downright difficult. Some topics are hard to talk about so partners stay silent, which can create a sour divide in the partnership. Or, topics are so emotionally charged that each conversation becomes a boxing match. This combined with the modern jam-packed, full-tilt, boogie busy lifestyle that many of us occupy, it’s no wonder that couples are struggling with a capital S.
In this and my next PACT blog, I’ll be sharing communication tools you can use in your relationship right now. This post focuses on speaking. The goal is to speak directly, clearly, and kindly so you can successfully communicate your needs and desires to your partner. My next blog post will focus on effective listening. In quality, effective, and productive communication, both parts are essential.
So, speaking of speaking, how do couples stop dishing out negative communication – critical and shaming on the speaker side, lazy and defensive on the listener side?
Set the Tone
Many conversations begin with a need, request, or desire from one partner. Assuming that neither partner has magical mind-reading powers, these conversations happen often in long-term partnerships. One partner becomes aware that they want something from the other partner. For example, they want their partner to help out with dinner more often; or, they land a big promotion – yay! – but their workday hours will be longer – boo! – so they need their partner to do all drop-offs and pick-ups for the kids; or, they feel disconnected and are concerned for the wellbeing of their partnership.
All great reasons to talk to your partner. As the speaker, set your tone in your mantra. Sometimes before I choose to have a potentially tricky conversation with my husband, I’ll repeat this mantra to myself: I am direct, clear, and kind with my wants, needs, and desires. It grounds me and helps guide me through our conversation. I encourage you to adopt mine or craft one of your own.
Start with “I”
Direct, clear, and kind conversations involve “I” statements:
- “I am so excited, and if I’m honest, I’m a little overwhelmed by this promotion. I need your help.”
- “I feel lonely and disconnected from you, and I don’t like it.”
- “I don’t enjoy making dinner every night. I want to switch off nights with you.”
Notice the clarity that naturally occurs when making an “I” statement. It’s all about the speaker and the speaker’s experience. It does not blame or shame. It’s not passive-aggressive.
“I” statements help speakers be vulnerable and speak directly. An “I” statement is not, “I feel that you’re not helping with dinner because you don’t appreciate that my time is as valuable as yours.” That statement is more about assumptions and blame. The speaker isn’t taking responsibility for their own feelings.
Making an “I” statement is powerful. And making an “I” statement can also be hard. Sometimes the difficultly lies in the fact that no one modeled this useful tool in the partner’s first family or family of origin. A skill is hard to learn if no one ever teaches it.
Create a Code Word That Matters
Another reason why “I” statements can be challenging is the sheer vulnerability inherent in this form of communication. Using “I” allows the speaker to take full responsibility for their own feelings – and for their wants, needs, and desires. If that person doesn’t have a history of their wants, needs, and desires being of value in their first family, then they will probably be afraid to speak directly and consciously. Unconsciously, they may want to hide their vulnerability behind shaming or criticizing their partner. If this is you, I have another tool for your arsenal.
This tool seems simple but sometimes even I forget to use it:
- Ask your partner for help.
- Alert them that this is hard for you.
- Agree on a code word.
My husband and I use the word vulnerable. When either of us use this alert, we know that one of us is pushing ourselves and may need help. Sometimes I preface a request from my husband with, “I’m feeling really vulnerable. This is hard for me to talk about with you, but I know it’s important that we talk about everything together so here we go.” When I bust out our code word, he’s on the same page, and we’re teaming it up.
Team Up for Success
Since hard conversations can already be challenging, set yourselves up for the best chance at success. Remember what’s important:
- Limit distractions.
- Place yourselves face to face.
- Wave a friendly flag at each other.
It’s nice to say something authentically kind to your partner. It can be as broad as “I love being married to you” or as detailed as “I really appreciate how you set up our patio last night and barbecued for everyone. You hosted our friends so lovingly. Thank you.” Just make sure your message is sincere.
If you’re not feeling any appreciation for your partner, don’t fake it. See if you can make your eyes warm and inviting. It may be helpful to evoke a memory where your partner helped you out or made you feel loved. Just pausing and remembering moments of connection can often soften us. Remember that you want to get to the other side of this conversation together.
Keep in mind that using “I” statements, asking for help from your partner in real time, and talking face to face may be a new experience for you guys so be sure to celebrate victorious direct communication together when it happens as a way to encourage more direct communication together.
Be gentle with yourselves as you learn, practice, and grow your skill set, too. Even as a couple therapist, I’m still learning how to better communicate with my husband and, honestly, I don’t think it’ll ever end. We’re both continuing to grow and change, and our communication needs to continue to evolve to reflect these changes. So, speaking from my own experience, busting out these basic communication tools sure does minimize the growing pains.