As a marriage and family therapist for over 30 years, I’ve seen a lot of couples. And over and over, the demise of marriages and relationships in general, is not over money, children, or health but crummy communication styles. Unfortunately we were not taught in school or at home about how to communicate so we resort to a free-wheeling and unconscious style, unaware of the consequences of how our message is received.
Here are the three relationship killers of love, connection, openness, and intimacy and how to cut them off at the pass.
1. We “you” the other person. That means we tell the other person about themselves — what they should do, how they should be, and how they were, all under the guise of being helpful. When we “you” another person we’re out of own back yard. We give unsolicited advice and make negative observations. Our knee-jerk reaction is to blame, resorting to sarcasm and criticism, teasing, attacking, and finger-pointing. And the result is that if we aren’t ready for or don’t want feedback, it immediately inspires defensiveness and falls on deaf ears. These “you-ing” strategies are guaranteed to create separation and alienation. The recipient feels hurt, misunderstood, and angry. No constructive communication ensues and the receiver walls him or herself off against the pain and insult.
The most important thing to remember is to “talk about yourself.” This is our true domain. Our job is to share what we feel, think, want, and need. Doing so brings closeness, as we reveal information about ourselves. It can be scary and definitely takes some practice to figure out what is really going on inside. We have become so use to being in other people’s business. But it’s not too difficult if we pause for a minute when we’re about to “you” someone. In that moment we must ask ourselves “What’s true for me about the specific topic at hand?”
For example, instead of saying “You’re late. Obviously you don’t value my time.” Say “I was worried when you didn’t arrive at 5:00pm, especially since we agreed to text or call when we’re held up. I’d appreciate it if you would do that in the future so I don’t feel anxious.”
2. We overgeneralize, bringing up the past and living in the future instead of sticking to the specific topic at hand and dealing with the present. Overgeneralizing can take the form of sweeping conclusions, abstractions, and labels, and using words like “always” and “never.” The tendency to bring in other topics barely related to the subject at hand, and not letting go of situations does not solve the issue at hand. Lumping topics together is confusing and makes it difficult to understand what’s really going on and what the upset is truly about. Resorting to vague generalities and multiple topics creates overwhelm in all parties concerned. Overgeneralizing kills clear communication and will not address the current situation.
The second most important thing to remember is to stay specific and concrete. That’s what we do with music, architecture, engineering, cooking, math, physics, and computers; and what we must do when communicating. When we stay specific, others can understand what we’re saying – the topic, the request, the reasons. It means we must deal with one topic at a time. Staying focused on one subject brings peace as we can understand each other’s position and begin to find some common ground from that space.
Rather than saying, “You always embarrass me in front of your friends. You make fun of my cooking, belittle my knowledge of football, and treat me like I’m the maid.” Say “I felt hurt and humiliated at the party last night. I spent a lot of time creating a nice environment for everyone to watch the game and I’d like to be appreciated for my efforts.”
3. We don’t speak up and take care of ourselves, mostly due to feeling bad about ourselves and or the fear that the other person will have an emotional reaction. We bury what’s true for us and sacrifice ourselves in the process. We become unwitting victims of our own inability to stand up for ourselves and or state our needs.
The most important thing to do is to lovingly and effectively speak up about what is true for you. It is based on the premise that we are both equal and entitled to have our wants, needs, and opinions respected and taken into consideration. To this end we must abide by the Attitude Reconstruction rules of communication: 1. talk about yourself; 2. stay specific; 3. focus on kindness; and 4. listen 50% of the time. Handle upsets as they arise or shortly thereafter.
Stockpiling your unspoken truths can become chronic and will eventually destroy your self-image or result in internalized anger that will eventually blow up and lead to unpleasant confrontations. In either case, your needs will never be met, your physical and mental health will suffer, and the relationship will likely be destroyed.
If you can’t picture yourself mustering the courage to speak up, you may be suffering from low self-esteem. It’s helpful to remind yourself of the truth by repeating often and on a daily basis, “My views and needs are as important as yours.”
Relationships are hard work. Clear communication is not something we likely learned from our parents or peers. So practice these simple skills and become a loving communicator and partner. You’ll be rewarded with much more satisfying personal relationships.
Want to find out more about the attitudes and emotions that dominate your character and may be sabotaging your personal happiness? Take a quick self-quiz here, and then try the coping strategies designed to address them.