Communication and Relationships

Perhaps you, like many couples, find that the most difficult period is during the transition for short-term to long-term, which could be anywhere from six months to two years. This pivotal time is when communication becomes more important and unfortunately it's also the time when it can get bogged down. Conflict between any two people (which I define as seeing or doing things differently) is inevitable, so the way you handle conflict will influence how smoothly your relationship will go. This article focuses on how to communicate with your partner in order to have communication that's productive while at the same time help you to feel closer to each other.

As a therapist with over 20 years of experience, I believe that there are several roadblocks to resolving conflicts. One is if you try to resolve problems immediately. If urgency causes you to bring up something right before you go to bed or while you're at work, it can make things worse. Rather, discuss issues when you're together in a relaxed atmosphere, perhaps over coffee or a meal. Usually, it's better to let a little time pass before bringing it up (after the heat cools), but don't wait for more than a few days, or your partner may not recall what happened.

Another roadblock is to withdraw. It can cause your partner to react with fear or anger. If you withdraw, consider using more direct ways to express your feelings toward your partner, and avoid the temptation to stay silent.

Other roadblocks include relationship games (also known as patterns). One game is "I'm mad at you and I'm not going to tell you why." To avoid this game, remember that your partner is not a mind reader, so don't expect him or her to be.

Another game is called “Cashing in.” In this game, you let little annoyances and problems pile up until you blow up, throwing him or her all of your grievances at once. To avoid this game, speak up when something bothers you instead of waiting till you explode.

Using “hot-button” words and phrases can also lead to roadblocks. Hot-button words are words or phrases that you know will get a negative reaction from your partner. For instance, accusing your partner of something will cause him or her to get upset and reply defensively. You answer back in a predictable way and you're both ‘off to the races." This pattern can become so ingrained that you can guess the outcome before you start talking. So, if you know your partner reacts negatively to hot-button words or phrases, state what you want to say differently.

Arguing about what was said in the past leads to going round-and-round. Rather, accept what your partner says now, so you don't have to argue about who is right about what was said earlier. Likewise, tell your partner what you intended to say or that you changed your mind.

In general, to avoid communication breakdowns, you should attempt to learn conflict resolution skills. One major aspect of conflict resolution is to specify an action as opposed to identifying a trait. For example, mention that you are upset that your partner doesn't pick up his or her clothes rather than saying s/he is lazy. In fact, calling your partner any name, such as stupid, controlling, ignorant, etc. escalates into an argument. Identifying an action has a better chance for a resolution.

Another skill to solve communication problems is to use "active listening." Active listening is rephrasing or summarizing what your partner is saying to you. It doesn't involve interpreting what your partner is saying, and it's not simple parroting either. When you are done paraphrasing, wait to see if s/he corrects you before continuing the discussion.

For example, if your partner says, "I was embarrassed at the restaurant when you started shouting," an active listening response is, "You were uncomfortable when I started to scream." Active listening also means that you would ask your partner to solicit more information.

Another tool is to use "I" statements. "It is rude for you to leave the room when I'm talking," is an example of a “You” statement. Instead, try saying, "When you left the room, I got angry." Those kinds of statements are hard for your partner to dispute, and it explains that how you feel is a result of what happened.

When conflicts arise, partners at times hurt each other. Generally, people think that the person who is right shouldn't have to apologize. Rather, if your spouse is upset, apologies reduce hurt feelings, and it doesn't matter who is "right." And an apology is complete only when you commit to yourself to not doing it again.

A vital aspect of communication is trying to understand your partner's point of view. Instead of viewing your conflicts as right-and-wrong (I'm right and s/he's wrong), try to see it as two people having different points of view. You can make it easier by taking your own and your partner's thoughts, feelings and desires into account. By doing so, you're acknowledging you have two equally valid points of view and therefore have several options for handling relationship challenges.

So, in order to develop a healthy relationship, show respect for your partner by avoiding games and learning to openly communicate. In my experience with couples, when you learn to communicate with each other, you are at least half-way to solving any problem.