- A fundamental part of achieving genuine closeness for a couple is learning to communicate freely and easily with each other.
- Good communication between partners requires giving adaptive feedback.
- When communicating with one's partner, an attack will take them out of a receptive state. It is best to approach them with vulnerability instead.
A key sign of a secure and healthy relationship is the ability to be honest. Having a partner with whom we can communicate freely and easily is a fundamental piece of the puzzle when it comes to achieving genuine closeness. It’s also the only way for the person we’re with to truly know us for who we are.
Yet, even the most communicative of couples can struggle when it comes to finding an adaptive way to give each other feedback. Being honest is not an excuse to say every mean thought that comes into our heads or to lash out at our partner every time we’re upset with them. However, it does sometimes mean communicating about subjects that are complicated or uncomfortable, including when we feel angry, hurt, or upset at them.
So, what is the best way of broaching these topics with our partner? In my experience working with couples, I’ve found that these four principles have made the biggest difference when it comes to achieving communication where both people feel seen, heard, and closer to each other in the end.
1. Get calm yourself.
Nothing good almost ever comes from entering a discussion in a heated or “flipped lid” state. Flipping our lid describes when we feel triggered emotionally, and our middle prefrontal cortex essentially shuts down.
There are nine functions of our middle prefrontal cortex, which include body regulation, attuned communication, emotional balance, response flexibility, empathy, insight or self-knowing awareness, fear modulation, intuition, and morality. We want these functions to be working well, not shutting off, when we’re talking to someone close to us about a personal issue. Without these functions intact, we tend to act before we think, saying things we later regret or having an outburst that drives us further from our ultimate goals.
In order to get our prefrontal cortex back online, rhythmic predictable activities help. Take a deep breath. Count to 10. Go for a walk. We should do whatever we need to do to center ourselves and calm our nervous system. In these moments, we should try not to get too attached to our thoughts and should avoid building a case against our partner. The primary aim is to get calm. Then, we can deal with what’s bothering us with these important functions intact.
2. Don’t attack.
Often, our first instinct when we feel wronged is to attack. Again, this is almost never a useful strategy when communicating with someone we care about. That’s not to say there aren’t times when we have a genuine reason to be angry, and we certainly have a right to express it. However, tearing the other person down, overly defending ourselves, and using all our might to win an argument is not likely to help the other person understand our feelings or even hear our concerns. When attacked, the natural human response is to get defensive. When we trigger this reaction in our partner, they are not going to be in a receptive state.
In order to keep ourselves out of attack mode, we should avoid amping ourselves up. We can do this by paying close attention to times when we’re feeding our feelings with negative thoughts. This includes ruminating on the other person’s negative traits, using evidence to build a case against them, or painting a one-sided picture of the problem.
The goal is open communication. We don’t want to sabotage our efforts by fanning the flame of our anger and making it less likely that our partner will be able to respond to our feedback. We can eventually say everything we need to say, but we can do it in a way that doesn’t ignite unnecessary tension and combative interactions.
3. Be vulnerable.
This is really hard to do when we’re angry, and even harder when we feel righteous. Yet, we do ourselves a service when we’re willing to think about our part in whatever conflict we’re experiencing. If we want openness from our partner, we have to be open ourselves.
When we approach them, we should try to come from a place of vulnerability. We should make the effort to focus on what matters to us most and express that. Rather than using blaming language about what they did, we should describe how we feel and what we want. For example, instead of saying, “You never consider my feelings. You just do whatever you want whenever you want,” we could say, “I feel hurt sometimes when I don’t feel considered. I’d really like you to try to ask me how I’m doing more often and hear me out when I ask for something I want.”
We can also share our part in what took place. For instance, in the above example, we may say, “I recognize that I’m not always very good at letting you know how I feel. And I sometimes punish you when I feel overlooked. I’m sorry for that. I’ll try to be better about telling you directly when something’s wrong.”
4. Ask with curiosity.
As we become more vulnerable and open in our communication, we have to invite the same from our partner. That means taking the sometimes difficult step of listening to what they have to say. Our goal during this process is often to pick apart what the other person is getting wrong and arguing. But what if instead we actually tried to really understand and explore how they saw the situation?
We can make an effort to be open to their perception and empathetic to what they felt. We shouldn’t interrupt or jump in to be defensive. We’ll have a chance to say what we thought and felt, but validating another person’s experience as distinct from our own allows them to feel free to tell their story and more relaxed in hearing ours.
As we do this step, and all of these steps for that matter, one thing we have to do is keep our inner critic in check. A voice in our head may be there encouraging actions that are counter to the open communication we are attempting to achieve. For example, if our partner gives us feedback, that voice may dramatize or exaggerate what they’re saying. It may cause us to turn on ourselves or our partner because it makes us feel like we can’t handle any criticism. If we notice this inner critic chiming in, we can stand up to it by acknowledging that these are just thoughts flooding our head like a sadistic coach shouting at us from the sidelines; they’re not a full reflection of our real point of view.
Advice about how to communicate with a partner is often easier said than done, but taking the time to calm down and reach a place of curiosity rather than judgment can help us avoid two things: pushing our partner away by launching into attack mode and turning on ourselves for having the reactions we do. As we take these steps, we have to remember to be kind to ourselves. We’re not perfect. Our partner isn’t perfect. But our communication can get a whole lot better, and the relationship itself can get stronger.
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