“We never talk any more” or “we have communication issues” are the most frequent responses I hear from both sexes when I ask “what brings you to therapy?” Certainly there are myriad underlying reasons for this and both parties have their version of why this is. Their perceptions and feelings merit processing in session, both to glean insight into the dynamics in the couple’s relationship and also for one to be able to “hear” and learn about the other. A behaviorist professor of mine many moons ago used the phrase, “Know your critter”, which I have coined.
But, how can you know your critter, if you can’t hear him / her or he / she cannot share themselves openly, honestly or safely? “Hearing” is the key aspect of communication and, is often, what is missing while each person feels as though they are talking to the proverbial wall.
Having a safe haven for communication
In my counseling session first, I lay out the ground rules for consideration in the journey to knowing and communicating with “your critter”. I invite couples to reflect on how much easier it is to “communicate” and how much more validated they feel, when they have a safe haven (home) in which they can share their dreams, grievances, fears, appreciations and all the other ingredients that go into a relationship and being human.
Remember, “feelings are never right or wrong, they just are” and when they have a safe home in which to reside, clarity rules, and conflict dissolves.
Sounds easy! However first, BOTH individuals must master the art of eliminating five common reactions to their partners feelings, which are often perceived through subjective filters (aka: “baggage” and “triggers”).
The key criteria for creating space for growth is, understanding, compassion and empathy, it allows each partner to expand past their own fears, self-protection and deflection. . . all game-breakers to intimacy, an emotionally-evolved and fulfilling secure relationship.
A safe home for communication can NOT include:
- Criticism- example: “You are never satisfied. You never do anything right.”
- Blame- example: “It’s your fault because you’re never on time.”
- Defensiveness- example: “I don’t want to talk about it.” “ I didn’t say that!”
- Ego- example: “I know what is best. What I say goes”
- Judgement- example: “You act like that because you’re a democrat (republican).”
While it is easy to see how all of us go to any or all of these hiding places when our partner is trying to communicate their needs, wants or desires. We feel threatened. However, clients have reported a greater sense of liberation, authenticity and curiosity to learn more about themselves and their partners when the knee-jerk (& primal) automatic responses of: criticism, blame, defensiveness, ego, and judgment are eliminated from interactions intended to bond rather than break the love.
It is not always easy to break automatic reactions when we “feel” attacked, however when we practice mindfulness (self-awareness), it becomes easier to shed these destructive responses in service to the higher purpose… A more loving relationship, not to mention, a heightened sense of peace within.