The other day my husband, Dan had a reaction about me, which he chose to share. He said something along the lines of, “you know, you are really a good balance between being creative and detail-oriented.”
I liked what I heard. “Oh? Tell me more”, I said. He went on to elaborate, and I ended up learning more not only about myself in that conversation, but about him as well—how he perceives me, types of behaviors he appreciates, etc. It was a rich and interesting conversation.
Afterwards, I got to thinking… It’s so easy to say “tell me more” to our partner when what we hear from them is pleasurable to our ears; when it fits with our ego or how our self-image wants to be seen.
Yet, even when we hear something that isn’t so pleasurable, such as “you know, you are always running late,” there is still the same opportunity to learn about each other and to have that same rich conversation.
There are often 2 communication traps that often get in the way, though:
- The delivery from partner #1 isn’t so great because they say it from a place of frustration– it comes through as attacking and accusatory. This triggers partner #2’s limbic system to shift into fight or flight, to which ineffective reactions ensue.
- What partner #2 hears doesn’t fit with their self-image, incites shame or guilt, or reminds them of (what they view as) a weakness that they have been trying to grow away from. None of these inspire a curious or open response.
You probably find yourself both in partner #1 as well as partner #2 shoes. In any case, these are both problematic and there are tools you can use to help!
Partner #1: Work on timing… just because you feel frustrated, doesn’t mean now is the best time to share your thoughts with your partner. In fact, it’s probably the worst time. Exercise self-discipline, take some deep breaths, see the bigger picture of your relationship and what you are trying to create together, and wait until you feel calm and more objective. Then share from a place of curiosity, “I notice this about you, what do you think?”
Partner #2: Just because your partner says something that feels accusatory, doesn’t mean you are justified to fire back. There are other options available such as, “I want to hear what you are saying, and I can’t when you say it that way. Can you rephrase that?” Or, “I want to hear what you are saying, and can we talk more about it tonight after dinner?”
Doing either of those behaviors is a skill, and sharpening a skill just takes practice.
Remember to be as open to hear what your partner notices about you that may be hard to hear as what feels like a compliment. Also try having a discussion about what YOU (not your partner) would like to shift in terms of your ineffective reactions; what you do when you are not the version of yourself. Hold yourself accountable to it, and then just watch how you both begin to dance together.
If you would like more help moving through these difficult interactions reach out to us for a free consultation.
Michelle Wangler Joy, MFT, has been employed at The Couples Institute in Menlo Park, CA, since 2002, and is currently a therapist on staff. She trains with relationship experts Ellyn Bader, Ph.D and Peter Pearson, Ph.D to deliver state of the art tools for couples. Michelle provides both couples and individual counseling, teaches communication workshops, and conducts training seminars both locally and nationally for therapists on how to help more couples.