Three Enticing Ways to Improve Communication and Intimacy
We may be missing the boat when it comes to communication skills.
Posted Jun 25, 2016
We all know that being a good listener goes a long way to increasing harmony and intimacy in a relationship. But what about the person doing the talking? Can he or she say whatever is on their mind and hope for the best? The simple answer is no. For a relationship to really shine, the speaker must share in the responsibility of making sure the conversation goes smoothly.
So how can you express yourself and your needs in a way that both honors the relationship and gives you the best chance of meeting your needs? By using what I call "the three laws of speaking." The word “law” may sound a bit strong, but if couples know what to expect when they communicate with their partner, they’re apt to feel safer, which is likely to foster closeness and intimacy.
Law of Speaking #1. You have a choice.
Probably one of the biggest myths perpetuated by pop psychology is the notion that it's healthy to "let all your feelings out." This idea came from Freud's "hydraulic model" of emotions. He wrote that unexpressed feelings can build up if not released, any eventually exert so much pressure on the dam that it breaks, flooding the entire system. Modern research has shown the flaws in this model, especially in regard to certain negative feelings. For example, results from numerous studies show that the cathartic expression of anger only leads to increased feelings of anger. My clinical work also supports this. I’ve observed over and over again that couples meet with disaster when they mistakenly assume that it's a good thing to share all their thoughts and feelings, whenever and however the mood strikes them.
To put this in more practical terms, you must remember that you have a choice. Simply because you experience a feeling doesn't mean you have to express it right then and there. Imagine, for example, that checking your credit card statement online, and you're angry about something your partner bought – you think it's an extravagant purchase, and wish you'd been consulted. Given that you're angry, here's a list of some of the choices you can make:
- Whether or not you will express your feelings to your partner. Maybe you'll decide it's not really such a big deal after all.
- When to express your feelings to your partner. Do you choose to say something at the very moment when your experience that feeling? Do you wait until you calm down? Do you find a time when your partner might be more receptive?
- How you express your feelings to your partner. Do you yell, scream, whine, or pout? Do you calmly tell your partner how you feel? Are you direct? Or do you express your angry feelings passively, perhaps by doing something to retaliate or get even?
- How you'll care for yourself and your relationship. Do you take steps to soothe yourself and calm yourself down? You don't have to tell your partner every feeling about every incident. You have other options: writing in a journal, exercising, reading something funny… Or do you go over in your mind all the past times your partner has done something that made you angry, adding fuel to the fire?
It might seem as if I’m asking you to be over-controlled in your expression of feelings, but I’m not. Certainly, being emotionally shutdown is not the way to create a healthy relationship. But the benefits of expressing your feelings must be balanced against the potential to do harm to the integrity of the relationship, and to your partner’s self-esteem. The key is when and how to express your feelings.
Law of Speaking #2: Assume responsibility for your thoughts and feelings.
In communicating with your partner, you must accept the fact that you alone are responsible for your feelings. No one can "make you mad" – you choose your reactions. Certainly, external factors can conspire to make it more likely that you'll feel one way or another. For example, if your spouse approaches you in a loud, argumentative tone, accusing you of something you didn't do, you're likely to feel somewhat self-righteous and defensive. It's up to you whether to act on these feelings or to change your thinking in such a way that other feelings can take their place. You might know that your spouse has been under a lot of pressure lately, and your empathy might allow you to react in a completely different, much more generous manner. Ultimately, we all create our own reality. Keeping this in mind, you can polish the rough edges of your statements by prefacing them with, "I think…" Or "I feel…" This alerts your partner to the fact that you're owning your thoughts and feelings: you're making it perfectly clear that you realize that your perceptions are subjective.
Law of Speaking #3: Speak with kindness and clarity.
It's helpful when you're talking with your partner about some negative feeling or some complaint to also include positive feelings you have. For example, if you're annoyed that your partner didn't do the dishes as he promised, you could begin your conversation noting how much you appreciate the time he spends with the children in the evening. You might also say, "I know you've been working hard all day, but I really need your help with the dishes tonight." Also, show your partner you're aware of the impact your statements may have. You might start out by saying, "I know it's hard for you when I say things that sound critical…" Remember, your partner is your friend, lover, and companion: your goal is not only to communicate your feelings fully, but also as graciously as possible. In addition, speak with as much clarity as you can muster. By clarity I mean: stay in the present (don't dredge up old dirt) and stick with the salient points. No matter what the content, aim for self-expression to be an opportunity to strengthen the core feelings of love and affection that originally drew you together.
Summary of key points:
- State your views as your own thoughts and feelings, acknowledging your subjectivity. Begin your statements with "I think…" Or "I feel…" rather than "you never…" Or "you always…"
- When expressing negative emotions or criticisms, also include any positive feelings you have about your partner or the situation.
- Make your statements as specific as possible.
- While expressing yourself, demonstrate your respect for your partner by showing that you are aware of the impact that your statements may have. Show that you care about your partner’s feelings.
- Stick to one subject at a time whenever possible.
By following these guidelines, you'll learn to express yourself in a manner that not only shows respect for your partner, but also help you present your own needs and wishes in a way that makes your partner more willing to help and brings you closer together.
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