One of the most important skills when it comes to relationship maintenance is communication. However, if you’re not careful, communication can actually make relationship problems worse. For as much as we’re taught that communication is the key to solving all of a relationship’s problems, it remains one of those areas where couples have vastly different ideas of what communication does and doesn’t mean. All the talking in the world doesn’t mean a damned thing if one person see’s their honey-bunny’s lips moving but all they hear is “wa wa wa wa wa wa” like a bizarrely sexual version of Charlie Brown’s teacher.
Whether you want to increase the intimacy in your relationship, find ways of getting closer with your honey or simply find more effective ways of clearing the air, you want to make sure that you’re not just heard but understood. And that means making sure you’re communicating the right way.
Understand Your Communication Style (and Learn Your Partner’s)
One of the common issues I see in couples isn’t that they don’t communicate, it’s that they’re communicating in a way that their partner doesn’t understand. Everybody has their own personality quirks; the problem is how often we tend to assume those quirks are completely understandable, transparent and universal. You think you’re making yourself perfectly clear. Your partner, on the other hand, is mystified like a dog that doesn’t understand why the cat doesn’t want to be his friend.
It doesn’t do any good if what you think is an unmistakable sign of your affection and appreciation for someone is “things we do on Tuesday” as far as your partner is concerned. You think you’re signaling that you want sex when you start rubbing your girlfriend’s shoulders; meanwhile, your girlfriend thinks that you’re just being nice after a long day at work. This communication mismatch means that somebody’s going to end up frustrated and annoyed.
Occasionally it’s a matter of differences in personality. Some people are perpetually jokey and playful and will use humor to diffuse a situation they may think is tense. Others want serious discussions about serious things and find those tension-breaking jokes to be a sign of disrespect. Some people hold everything in and only let things out when they reach a boiling point, while others let it all hang out with the enthusiasm of a family Thanksgiving free-for-all after cracking open the fourth bottle of wine. Some people, especially when dealing with emotional or complex relationship topics, will prefer to take time to formulate their thoughts, while their partners may take this reticence to discuss things right then and there to be a sign of not respecting them enough to give an answer or to take the topic seriously.
Misunderstanding your partner’s communication style can lead to, well, profound miscommunications. I’ve known people who start to tear up when they get worked up emotionally – any emotions, happy, sad, the triumph of cooking especially tasty pasta fagioli, whatever. Their partners, however, can’t stand it; they see the tears well up and assume that it’s a way of shutting the conversation down because what kind of insensitive bastard keeps going after he’s made his girlfriend cry?
Part of effective communication in a relationship is learning how to adapt your communication style to your partner’s and how to translate your parnter’s communication style to your own. Responding to “sex?” with “WAFFLE IRONS!” is only going to leave everyone confused and vaguely hungry.
(Well, assuming you’re not a pair of Dadaists anyway…)
But speaking of being misunderstood…
Quit Assuming You’re A Mind Reader
A lot of people, even people in long-term relationships, make the mistake of believing that they know their partner’s position on everything. While it’s true that over time you get a pretty good handle on your partner’s likes, dislikes, pet-peeves and peccadillos, it’s not a guarantee that you actually know how they feel about a particular topic. When you assume you know how they feel already, you tend to end up reacting to the assumption you’ve assigned to them in your head, rather than how they really feel.
I’ve lost track of how many people have had more crises than the DC Universe1 because they had an issue they felt that they couldn’t possibly bring up. In their minds, they had already had this discussion and knew exactly how it would turn out and there was just no point in actually trying to talk it out. Now, maybe they’re right. Maybe they’re wrong. But because they’re responding to what they assume is their partner’s position, they’ve begun to get angry and resent the disagreement they haven’t actually had, which in turn leads to other, real, conflicts.
Yes, you may know your partner well, but you’re not a mind-reader. Until you’ve actually sat down and talked things out, you have no idea if your girlfriend’s position on, say, mangosteens, has changed. Perhaps she’s willing to give them a try now. Maybe she’s had other issues around tropical fruit that meant she was rejecting them out of hand but deep down she’d always been curious about them and is finally in a place to actually experiment with them a little.
This tendency to respond to the assumption versus the reality often goes both ways – especially if the topic is one that you have had a strong negative reaction to in the past. It doesn’t take much to assume that the position someone held two months ago, six months ago, or two years ago hasn’t changed, but it’s still better to talk things out rather than just presume.
Avoiding assumptions and presumptions about how your partner feels means being willing to bring up possibly difficult topics and actively listening to what they have to say… and making sure you understand. Ask questions. Repeat their position as you understand it, just to make sure you’re clear.. and then make sure you get why they feel that way, not just that they do. Sometimes the issue isn’t the act or the situation or what-not, it’s the issues behind them.
Take Them Seriously
You know what’s a great way to ensure that your partner never reaches out to you with something they may have strong feelings about? Treat it as though it was something absurd.
Part of what makes being in a relationship work is being able to be open with your partner – even to make yourself deliberately vulnerable to them. It can take a lot of courage – even in a committed, long term relationship – for someone to open up to a partner, especially if it’s a topic that they might be sensitive over. They might be hesitant to bring up something that’s bothering them because they’re afraid of how you’ll react. They may try to initiate a conversation about a desire they have and worry that you’re going to judge them for having it. They might be trying to share a goal, a dream, even some hope for the future because for the first time, they feel secure enough with somebody to actually open up and share this incredibly intimate part of themselves.
So when their partner treats them like they’re being ridiculous or childish or disgusting or just reacts dismissively out of hand, they learn not to share any more. What’s the point of opening up to your partner when you’re just going to get smacked down for it?
Treating your partner’s desires or concerns as something unimportant – or worse, just stupid – is a great way to gut-shoot a relationship; it may not die immediately, but you’ve definitely set it on the path to a long, slow and torturous ending. Diminishing someone’s insecurities, telling someone they’re being childish or stupid or that they don’t have a right to feel the way they do is an indication of how you feel about them as a person.
Don’t get me wrong: this doesn’t mean that everything must be treated with the reverence of a papal bull, but it is important to hear your partner out and to give them the respect of actually listening and paying attention to what they have to say. It may be silly to you, but it’s clearly serious to them… otherwise they wouldn’t be bringing it up in the first place.
“Safe” Isn’t The Same As Communicating (Or: Some Fights Need To Happen)
Another thing I see people do that inadvertently shuts down communication between couples: they try to be too “safe”. They avoid controversial topics. They “agree to disagree” whenever a subject becomes too heated. They try to put out verbal fires before they even start. It’s a noble idea, one that arises out of the best of intentions: minimizing conflict in a relationship. The idea is that the fewer arguments you have in a relationship, the better (or more mature or what-have-you) the relationship is.
I’m not going to lie: as soon as somebody tells me that they never fight or stop fights before they happen, I mentally start the countdown clock to their incredibly ugly break-up. As good as it is to handle things calmly and maturely, trying to squash any possible disagreements or friction can actually end up making things worse in the long run. When the goal becomes avoiding the fight or heading the conflict off at the pass, then often very little actually gets resolved; it becomes a matter of prizing the calm surface and ignoring the currents raging underneath. This is, in many ways, the opposite of communication. You may be talking, but you’re shutting down a dialogue that you may well need to be having.
Think of it like forest fires. As dangerous as they are, some fires are actually necessary for the forest’s ecology; they’re critical for habitat renewal and prevent the buildup of flammable debris. By focusing on wildfire suppression, you actually end up making things worse, not only preventing revitalization of the region but increasing the risk of larger, far more dangerous fires that can destroy an area beyond repair.
To extend an awkward metaphor a little further: when couples try to stamp out sparks before they can catch and flare up, you frequently miss the smoldering embers that are causing the sparks. You may have stopped this fight, but you’ve just ensured that the explosion later is going to be that much more epic and dramatic. Sometimes you need to let the argument actually happen so that you can get past the surface issues and down to the core, where the real problem is and get to resolving things after the fighting’s over.
Not All Communication Is Verbal
“We never talk,” is often heralded as a sign of problems within a relationship. Long conversations are held up as the highlight of communication and intimacy and people who aren’t necessarily terribly verbal are seen as somehow being deficient. Somebody who isn’t willing to open up and share their feelings is seen as holding back and being an impediment to intimacy. The desire for reciprocity becomes mandatory – one partner has opened up and spilled out their feelings, so now the other needs to do so as well because reasons. In many ways, there’s an implicit threat: if you don’t open up just as much as your partner did, then you’re doing something wrong, committing an emotional crime of sorts. The partner who’s just verbalized how they feel is left out in the cold, standing there with their metaphorical dick in their hand. Moreover, you have to do reciprocate to the same extent and volume as your partner did because obviously you want things to be equal right?
One of the more well-known examples of this in pop-culture is the movie Ghost. One of the defining aspects of Sam (played by Patrick Swayze) and Molly’s (played by Demi Moore) relationship is that Sam never says “I love you”, he says “ditto”. The film portrays this as a defect on Sam’s part – he’s clearly afraid of intimacy because he won’t just say the stupid words. There’s the implication that Molly can’t really know that Sam loves her because, well, he didn’t say it. That assumption – that it’s not real unless you actually say the words – is all over the place in our culture. If somebody isn’t willing to verbalize how they feel, then it’s a flaw that needs to be addressed.
But while talking is important, it’s not the only form of communication or the only way to express oneself. Not everybody is verbally expressive and prioritizing words over deeds often means overlooking or devaluing the way that individuals do express themselves. The person who isn’t big on saying “I love you” but shares your bed, takes care of you, cooks for you, holds you when you’re upset and makes a point of doing little things that they know you appreciate just because, is saying that they love you just as loudly and declaratively as someone who writes an epic poem on the subject. So much of communication is non-verbal, yet it seems odd to put the most meaning on words instead of actions. After all, when a person’s words conflict with their actions, we assume that the truth is in how they behave rather than in what they say… yet somehow this doesn’t hold as true when it comes to communicating within the relationship. Sometimes it’s easier to show how you feel rather than to say it.
Your partner may not necessarily be using their words, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t trying to communicate with you. Part of successful communication in a relationship isn’t in what you say, it’s in making the effort to understand what your partner is saying… no matter how they’re doing it.
- If you understood this then I am so, so sorry [↩]