Couples in Communication

September 26, 2003

Your greatest contribution to effective communication is clarity, focus, and non-defensiveness; your second greatest is support for your partner in providing the same.

Here are some specific tips:

1. Take responsibility for yourself. 

  • When you have an issue, speak up.

  • Don’t expect your partner to guess or know what you like, want, feel, or need.

  • Don’t save up issues and spring them on your partner when she or he raises an issue with you.

  • When you raise an issue, stay focused on that issue until the two of you resolve it or mutually agree to shelve or postpone it.

  • Be clear with yourself and your partner about how important a particular matter is to you. You can even use a scale: from 0 (unimportant) to 10 (extremely important) for example.

  • If something is of great importance to you (e.g., 7 or above) advocate for yourself, not against your partner.

  • Say “yes” when you mean “yes;” “no,” when you mean “no.” You can never truly say “yes” until you are free to say “no.”

  • Give up the notion that others “make me feel guilty”. No one can make you feel anything, feelings arise out of the perspective you take on events.

2. Let your partner take responsibility for her/himself. 

  • Help create a climate for open communication.

  • Don’t offer unsolicited or unwanted advice or solutions.

  • Don’t feel for, think for, or speak for your partner. Don’t answer for them or complete their sentences.

  • Don’t protect your partner from thoughts, feelings and wishes that are important to you. Find a loving way to raise them.

3. Listen actively. 

  • If your partner raises an issue, stay with that issue until the two of you resolve it or decide mutually to postpone it.

  • Resist temptations to point out your partner’s guilt for the same or a worse offense; to assume, second guess, or mind read; to defend yourself from real, inferred, or imagined criticisms.

  • Resist raising a separate issue of your own.

  • Resist bringing up everything “but the kitchen sink;” that is, cataloging your past hurts, problems, and complaints.

  • Work at understanding your partner’s point of view.

  • Check it out. Be sure you really understand what they’re saying. Ask!

4. Turn all complaints and criticisms into requests. 

  • Ask your partner for what you want him or her to do, rather than not do. Ask what you want them to do, rather than to be.

5. Distinguish feelings from judgments. 

  • A feeling is an emotional state; it is neither true nor false, simply a given state; e.g., “I feel sad (mad, jealous, happy, afraid, ecstatic, etc.)” are statements about me, descriptions of my own internal emotional condition. You are the best judge of your feeling (unless you are out of touch with them).

  • Statements like, “I feel that you are a jerk (or, e.g., the most wonderful person in the world),” are judgments. They are true, false, or a matter of opinion, depending on the evidence. They are a sloppy way of saying “I think, believe, judge that…” They have no special truth-value simply because they begin with the words: “I feel…”

  • Distinguish events (e.g. a bounced check) from an issue (e.g. our money management) or from hidden issues (e.g. my feelings of acceptance or recognition in the relationship).
    Discuss issues or hidden issues separately from events, which tend to be emotionally charged.

7. Avoid absolutes like: always, never, whenever. 

8. Protect your relationship from destructive interactions; call a “time out.” 

  • Have a standing agreement: if either you or your partner feels that that the exchange is getting destructive, either can call a “time out”. The partner has to agree to it without further discussion; both agree to resume the discussion within 2 days when both are calmed down.

9. Learn to soothe yourself.

  •  Remember that, in relationships, the faster negative emotion rises and the higher it goes, the less it has to do with the immediate situation and the more it derives from previous (especially, early) experiences. When it comes to committed relationships, we tend to choose those who can push our buttons.
  • Catch yourself.

  • Think about what has been touched off inside you.

  • Self-sooth: recognize, retreat, recoup, relax and return.

  • It is your responsibility both to disconnect your own buttons and resist pushing your partner’s.

Michael D’Antonio, PhD, is a Senior Staff Therapist at Council for Relationships’ Paoli Office. He can be reached at 610-889-0419.