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The Key to Healthy Communication

The other night at dinner, a man asked, “What do you suggest my girlfriend and I do to maintain good communication in our relationship?” What came to mind was all of the bad communication that I have observed between couples trying to have conversations with each other. And what struck me about all of these instances was that each of member of the couple had a lot to say about their partner and very little to say about themselves.

They complained about and criticized their partner. They blamed him or her for the problems in their relationship. They were full of suggestions about how the other one could improve and be a better partner but had few ideas about themselves. As they each focused on the other, their communication became deadlocked, and they reached an impasse.

So, what was my suggestion? ONLY TALK ABOUT YOURSELF! Do not talk about your partner. Talk about your thoughts and feelings about yourself, and your partner can talk about him or herself. In Daring to Love, I write:

In a conversation, there is only one thing you can be sure of— what you are thinking about or feeling in the moment. You can be sure of nothing else—not your partner’s thoughts, feelings, or perceptions, and not even the reality of what is going on between the two of you. For this reason, the only subject you can talk about with any authority is yourself and how you are feeling.

Pointers for communicating about yourself

Focus on what you can say about yourself in real time—not about something from yesterday or last week, not about something with work or the kids, and definitely not about something about your partner, just about yourself right now in this moment.

Acknowledge your irrational feelings. Don’t dismiss them as inappropriate, immature, or meaningless. Talk about feelings that you would much rather skip over or hide, feelings that you fear will cause you embarrassment or humiliation if you disclose them. This will help you be more open and unguarded in your communication.

Talk about what you want. Not the easy wants (“I want to go to that new restaurant,” “I want to go on a trip”), but the personal wants that come from deep down, where you feel most vulnerable (“I want to be more affectionate with you,” “I want us to be closer.”) The more you communicate on this level, the more in touch you will be with yourself, and the more authentic you will be as a person.

The benefits of communicating about yourself

Focusing on yourself interrupts the blame game that’s so easy for a couple to get caught up in. Simply removing the “you’s” from your sentences and introducing more “I’s” will change your tone from accusatory and critical to self-reflective and inviting. This will help both of you feel more open and vulnerable to each other.

It also promotes equality in your relationship. Many couples fall into a parent/child dynamic where one is advising and instructing the other. Even though the intent is not hostile, it is fundamentally disrespectful to speak to another adult in a condescending and superior manner. Speaking about yourself prevents either partner from playing the role of parent or child.

It will interrupt your critical inner voice’s attacks on your partner. The critical inner voice operates as an internal dialogue that supports the defenses that were formed from negative experiences you had as a child. You carry it within you into your relationships. It instills a level of doubt and criticism that keeps you from feeling that you are loveable and reminds you to be suspicious of others. It coaches you with thoughts like “She doesn’t really care about you” or “You can’t trust him. He’s going to hurt you.” These voice attacks based on your past cause you to misperceive your partner and distort the reality of your current relationship. They are the source of many of the criticisms you have of your partner. Therefore, talking about yourself with your partner disrupts this negative internal process.

And finally, it will help foster compassion and empathy for each other. As you and your partner each talk about yourselves, the listener will gain feeling for the speaker and an understanding of his or her experience.

Suggestions for listening to your partner

Going into a conversation, it’s important to remember that you don’t know what your partner really thinks and feels. You may assume you do, because you think you recognize an expression that appears on your partner’s face when he or she is hurt or angry. But until you have actually heard your partner, you know almost nothing. So, watch out for preconceived notions and don’t jump to conclusions. Rather, listen with fresh interest as he or she reveals his or her thoughts and feelings to you.

Listen with your heart. When your partner tells you about an incident, try to put yourself in his or her place. When you feel what your partner is feeling, you gain a sense of your partner as a human being who has personal pain and struggles like everyone else. You gain a new perspective. When you feel for your partner’s issues, your own personal overreactions become less significant. Giving advice or being judgmental suddenly seems condescending and patronizing. Acting hurt or victimized seems childish and self-indulgent. You are able to see your partner as a separate person for whom you care deeply as he or she copes with issues in life.

One last bit of advice: Give up the need to be right. A conversation with your partner is not a battle that you have to win. You don’t have anything to prove. You know that working things out between you can be a messy process, and you expect to have reactions. You may become angry and frustrated, or something your partner says may provoke you. But through it all, remember that your goal is to repair your relationship and not further alienate each other.

When you and your partner communicate with each other by speaking personally about yourselves, and listen with respect and genuine interest, many of the trivial issues between you will vanish. And as inconsequential matters are minimized, the important goals will remain: preserving and growing love, respect and understanding between the two of you.

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