We know that our partners aren’t mind readers, and it’s best to be clear with our communication. But whether we’re asking for help around the house, reminding our spouse about an unfinished task or requesting some space when we’re sad, it can sound like we’re nagging or criticizing them.
Of course, sometimes that’s exactly what we’re doing. But other times, that’s what they hear. Which actually makes physiological sense.
According to psychotherapist Mara Hirschfeld, couples are neurobiologically hard-wired to respond to one another differently than they do to everyone else around them.” That’s because, she said, our spouse is an “attachment figure”: “we become emotionally attached or attuned to our partner in such a way that his or her thoughts, feelings, and behavior have the ability to impact us (i.e., good or bad) more than anyone else in our world.”
Most couples also get stuck in a negative cycle or dance where one partner pursues while the other partner withdraws, said Hirschfeld, a licensed marriage and family therapist who has a private practice in Midtown Manhattan specializing in individuals and couples going through relationship distress. And when we’re triggered by our partner, we recreate this cycle so quickly and so automatically that it’s as though we’re actors in a play, she said.
In other words, “we get hard-wired to assume mal-intent such that we may frequently misinterpret our partners’ actions or intentions to be critical or hurtful when in fact they are not.”
But this doesn’t mean you should stay silent. It doesn’t mean you should keep quiet about your needs. The key lies in your communication—both verbal and non-verbal. Below, you’ll find the specifics and strategies.
Figure out your needs in the first place—and spell them out. Hirschfeld stressed the importance of asking yourself what you actually need, and why you need it.
This can be especially tough for people who grew up in families that didn’t allow free expression of your wants and needs, said Clinton Power, a clinical relationship counsellor and founder of Clinton Power + Associates in Sydney, Australia.
He suggested starting by thinking about the times you feel most supported by your partner, and what they’re specifically doing or saying. Also, think about the times you feel alone, disconnected or sad, he said. “These feelings can be the first indicator that something is missing for you and you have unmet needs.”
Once you know what you need, spell it out for your spouse, because as Hirschfeld said, the “clearer we can be, the more likely it is that we will get what we need.” She gave these examples: “I need you to hug me when I’m crying,” or “Can you pick up the kids from school today?”
Focus on the message. Before talking to your partner, Hirschfeld suggested asking yourself: “What is the message I’m trying to send my partner?” In other words, what do you want your partner to hear?
Focusing on this helps you to thoughtfully pick the words that are consistent with your message, versus getting stuck in needless narratives (e.g., harping on the past). According to Hirschfeld, the message might be “I miss you” or “It really hurts me when you ignore me.”
“Either way the more concise and vulnerable you can be, the better. The brain needs slow, simple language to process difficult emotion.” Speak from a vulnerable place. When we speak from this perspective, we’re “more likely to invite our partner to be compassionate and empathetic,” Hirschfeld said. This means instead of saying “What’s wrong with you that you’re on your phone?” or “You’re so annoying!” you say “I feel ignored or like I don’t matter to you when you are on your phone,” she said.
Sacramento psychotherapist Catherine O’Brien, LMFT, also encouraged readers to use “I” statements with this structure: “I feel ______, because ______ when ______. What I need is ______.” O’Brien offers therapy, coaching and workshops for moms and dads.
Use a soft start-up. “Therapist and researchers John and Julie Gottman discovered the way a couple raised an issue was a highly accurate predictor of how the discussion turned out,” Power said. Which is why raising issues softly and gently is so important.
Here’s what this might look like, he said: “Honey, I’m concerned about our financial situation. I’m worried we are spending more than we earn and I’m very concerned about our future if we keep spending like we are. I want to talk with you so we can come up with a solution together that will work for both of us. But I also want to listen to you and understand your concerns as well. Are you open to us talking further about this?”
Clinton suggested using prosody in your voice, which means speaking in a sweet, melodic style, so it sounds friendly, instead of demanding or critical. (Psychotherapist Stan Tatkin teaches this in his PACT couples therapy approach, he said.)
Power also suggested sitting close to your spouse, and putting your hand on their knee. (More on non-verbal cues below.)
Pay attention to your non-verbal cues. “Attending to your non-verbal behavior is a great way to reduce any possibility of your partner feeling threatened,” Power said. This is especially important if you’ve nagged or criticized before, because your partner will assume that it’s just more of the same, and automatically react that way.
He suggested the following: Pay attention to your tone of voice; use friendly facial expressions; use loving touch; remain close in proximity; and maintain eye contact. Of course, you want to do this in an authentic, genuine, kind way.
Set clear boundaries with consequences. And if your spouse doesn’t respond or take action, then follow through on those consequences, Power said. He gave this example: “I love you and know you’re busy, but we made an agreement that you were going to make dinner on the nights I work. When I come home late from work and dinner isn’t finished and the kids aren’t in bed, I imagine that you don’t care about the long hours I’m working. I then feel sad and disappointed. I really want to resolve this, but if you’re not going to stick with the original agreement, I’m going to make my own plans for dinner before I come home.”
Have a regular check-in. O’Brien always encourages her couple clients to regularly check in with each other. This is when you can share what’s going well and what you’re struggling with, and to ask for what you need.
When couples make check-ins a habit, it’s much easier to ask for what you need in general. For instance, O’Brien’s clients will text each other on their way home from work saying things like: “It’s a rough day, I’ll need an extra 10 minutes to decompress when I get home” or “I really need a hug today,” or “I don’t have the energy to make dinner; can we order in or can you prep the dinner?”
Recognize what is helpful. Notice, acknowledge and appreciate the helpful things your spouse does do—big or small, O’Brien said. Maybe they make you a cup of coffee every morning. Maybe they text when they’ve gotten to work. Maybe they get the kids ready for school so you can get more sleep.
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter what we say. Our spouse interprets what they hear in their own way. As O’Brien said, “we all come with our own ‘baggage,’ our own life experiences that inform what we hear. You have each had different experiences, learned different things from different people.”
So, she added, it can be helpful to say: “I am not trying to be critical or nagging; is there a way I can say it better?”
And if that doesn’t work, therapy is a powerful place to navigate your relationship struggles and grow stronger.