How couples communicate with each other can make or break a marriage. In times of stress and hardship, good communication can make you feel like you have unconditional support and understanding. Poor communication skills, on the other hand, can magnify the hard times and place a sometimes unbearable strain on the relationship.
But communication is a complicated matter—more complicated than most of us realize. It’s not just about talking and listening.
“Honey, can you hear me?” really means:
- Honey, are you perceiving me as safe or as a threat? This question encompasses factors such as facial expression, body language, tone of voice, and word choice.
- Honey, are you in a state emotionally and physically that enables you to focus on what I am saying? Or are you too tired? Too worried about work? Too anxious about a conversation we had yesterday? Etc.?
- Honey, is my style of communicating reminding you of someone in the past who hurt you or neglected you?
- Honey, do you believe I love you and want you to feel safe and secure even as we are discussing a difficult topic? Am I protecting you from me?
- Honey, has what I’ve already said made you so distressed that you cannot take in my opinions, my points, my feelings?
Here are 5 tools you can use to improve the communication in your relationship.
1. Find out how your partner perceives your face, tone of voice, and body language.
So much of communication lies in how partners react to one another. Particularly if your relationship has been strained, it becomes natural for your partner to interpret your words or nonverbal communication negatively. Maybe your “upset face” looks like a hostile face to your partner, when it’s not—it’s just a signal of your own upset. Maybe the tone of voice you use for emphasis (like in a debate) sounds like yelling to your partner. You get the idea.
So what do you do to prevent misinterpretation and reduce conflict caused by not reading each other correctly?
Let’s use the example of “yelling”: Your partner accuses you of yelling. Instead of saying, “I’m not yelling,” believe your partner hears your voice that way. You may not be “yelling” by your definition, but you are being perceived as getting loud, for whatever reason. Focus on your partner’s comfort level: change your tone, test it out with your partner, and consistently try to reduce the threatening effect of your voice. Continue to hear your partner’s feedback to change your voice until a much more comfortable communication and safe pattern results.
2. Understand what circumstances make it easier for your partner to deal with difficult topics.
When you discuss important but difficult topics, timing, place, and other circumstances matter. Even if you’re anxious to talk as soon as possible, you may want to wait a while after your spouse gets home from work or if you’re in a rush to head out the door. Most people have certain times of day when they’re more receptive than others. For example, during the middle of a hectic dinner or while your spouse is watching a show they enjoy may not be a great time for conversation.
Also, some people may need to listen to what their partner is concerned about, then take a break before they are ready to respond and discuss the topic fully. Others may need to talk into the night, no matter how late, to collaborate and reach a resolution to the problem.
Find out what works for your partner. You are not going to get the attention or response you are looking for if your partner can’t focus on what you’re saying and interact thoughtfully, for whatever reason. You may even want to change the setting altogether and go somewhere else to talk. You could talk at dinner at a favorite, in the corner of a coffee shop, or even go away for a weekend.
3. Find out if your communication style reminds your partner negatively of someone from the past and if that similarity is getting in the way of successful interaction.
“OMG, you sound just like my father!” might not be something you want to hear. But it is vital information for you to use to improve communication. If you partner says something like this to you, find out what the similarity is. Is it tone of voice? Is it word usage? Is it phrasing? Is it even the way you move you face while you are talking?
It could be one or all of the above—or even some other factor. Be curious and find out what feeling is invoked by the similarity between you and a person from your partner’s past. Does is make them feel shame? Fear? Humiliation? Anger? Unloved?
In some ways and in some situations, you are a representative of all the important people whom your partner knew before you. So your partner’s response may not be completely to you but also to a past bad experience, likely with a parent or another family member. If you know what triggers this response, you can possibly prevent the reaction or at least understand it when it happens.
4. Protect your partner, even when you are arguing.
Especially during times of stress and poor communication, it can be difficult to stay connected with your partner. Here’s the incredibly difficult challenge: Helping your partner feel loved, cared for, and secure while you are arguing. Obviously, you won’t be perfect at this; there will be times when you argue, hurt each other, and need to repair the damage afterward. But there are ways to protect your partner in an argument so that the connection remains safe.
Some of the solution lies above, in numbers 1, 2, and 3 of this blog post. In addition, you need to know your partner’s “hot buttons”–what you can do to send your partner into distress. If you don’t know, find out and avoid pushing those during an argument. You also need to understand your partner’s “cold buttons.” In other words, what can you say or do during an argument to calm your partner down and reassure your partner of your love and care?
5. Don’t try to communicate about difficult issues when either of you is in distress.
This involves understanding the way the nervous system, specifically the “arousal system” works. The word distress, in this context, refers to a physiological and neurological phenomenon in which the way you are communicating as a couple makes the fight-or-flight response active in your bodies and brains.
It’s complicated. But what’s important is to know that the rational, logical part of the brain goes “off line,” and the primitive part of the brain thinks either,
“I must get out of this argument. It’s threatening my well-being, my safety, my life,”
“I must attack, fight to the death, never give up until I have defeated my foe.”
When this happens, trying to collaborate and compromise to find a solution to the problem or a resolution to the issue at hand is impossible. What to do? Learn ways to manage each other’s distress, and continue the discussion only after both of you are able use all of your rational and emotional capacity to reconnect and interact.
Effective communication is not just about words. It’s about learning the unique style of your partner and using what you know to protect your relationship while trying to communicate.
How to develop these tools
If these five tools make sense to you and you want to learn more about how to develop and use them, find a therapist who is trained in PACT—the Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy. It might take some time and work, but you will no longer have to ask, “Honey, can you hear me?”
For immediate help, you can contact Susan Saint-Rossy at 703-651-6626 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.