You are getting ready for round 3 and you are exhausted. You and your partner have been fighting this battle for what seems like forever and it seems like you will be going the distance. Every round that comes and passes are non-productive but escalating with each minute. You get to a point where there seems to be no solution. And then you ask yourself, “Is this going to work?” You play the relationship in your head and begin to wonder if it will ever get better.
Communication between partners can be a delicate dance. In unison, the interaction can look graceful and harmonious. But with one step out of sync, a pair can find themselves struggling to get back on their feet and into rhythm. So what happens when one partner is dancing the waltz and other is dancing the tango? It becomes one mess of a show and can leave spectators feeling uncomfortable and awkward. And the dancers can feel frustrated and exhausted.
Emotional and cognitive communicators
People communicate in different ways. Consider the idea of emotional and cognitive communicators. Emotional communicators express themselves based on their feelings, their interpretations, and their “heart”. They may show their feelings verbally, as well as, nonverbally, displaying behaviours such as crying, laughing and, in some cases, yelling (to name a few). Focus can be on reactions rather than the situation itself. Cognitive communicators express themselves based on fact, rationale and logic. Rather than focusing on how the situation affects them, cognitive communicators will direct their attention to solutions and principles. They may show their opinions and insights verbally, but can exhibit nonverbal communication when expressing their confusion and frustration.
Let’s look at the following scenario: parents of a teenager disagree on how to discipline him for coming home 15 minutes after curfew. The mother, believing in the importance of maintaining consistent boundaries, tries to ground their son for the entire weekend. The father, believing in understanding each situation independently in order to identify possible exceptions, suggests that they give him a warning and remove his cell phone for one night. The mother becomes visibly upset, accuses her husband of never supporting her and undervaluing her parental instincts. The father, appearing confused, explains that the son had a valid reason for being late today and had a good track running with promptness until this night. They argue and the interaction escalates. The mother, now crying, detaches herself from the conversation and goes to her room, shutting and locking the door behind her. The father, perceiving his wife’s behaviours as indicative of needing space, shrugs his shoulder and begins watching his television show. They go to sleep with no resolution and highly frustrated. The communication has broken down.
(Please note the following disclaimer: By no means, is this a generalization that women are more likely to be the emotional communicator and males are more likely to be cognitive communicators. Communication styles differ from person to person, regardless of gender. Furthermore, it is highly recommended that disciplining a child is most effective when it is done collaboratively and is agreed upon by the caregivers).
In this situation, although there is one precipitating event, there are two distinct and separate conversations occurring. The mother, in this case, is advocating for validation and solidarity. Her focus is on expressing her feelings of being unheard. The father is arguing about his opinions on the best way to solve the problem at hand and discipline their son in a manner that is reasonable. The waltz. The tango. All in one confusing, offbeat, unsynchronized and frustrating fiasco.
Gary Chapman identified 5 love languages that can influence individuals’ relationships: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. These languages are distinct among individuals and it describes how they express love and expect love from others. Just like emotional and cognitive communicators, partners can also differ in their love languages, which can impact their communication and their relationship. Words of affirmation refers to utilizing words of affection and intimacy. Acts of service refers to behaviours that the individual may do in order to illustrate his or her care and love. Receiving gifts does not emphasize materialism, but focuses on the thoughtfulness that entails in providing and receiving tokens of affection. Quality time can include uninterrupted time together to connect with one another. Physical touch refers to the behavioural gestures that reflect intimacy and passion.
Love languages in a relationship can also differ, which can influence the likelihood of communication breakdown. For example, one partner may define love with words of affection and therefore expects such expressions from their loved one. Their loved one, on the other hand, may use acts of service as a symbol of his or her commitment and love. The former may not interpret his or her partner’s initiative to clean his or her car or fold the laundry as a sign of affection and may feel distant and unloved. His or her partner may then feel undervalued or minimized because the actions go unrecognized or validated. Similarly, in the example provided earlier about the parents who are trying to discipline their child, the mother may feel invalidated because her partner has begun to watch his sports game; however, his intentions have come from a good place, as he interprets her behaviours as a request for privacy and space.
Does this mean that a couple with differing communication styles are destined to fail? Absolutely not. According to the wise mind theory, the best perspective is one that combines emotion and logic, after all. So how can this all work? Trying the following steps may be helpful:
1. Accept that you have different communication styles.
Something as simple as acknowledgement can lead to more realistic expectations of one another. Acceptance also entails recognizing that you can’t change someone else’s behaviours and ways of thinking. Communication breakdown can begin when one tries to get the other to understand their emotions while the other is struggling to prove the logic in his or her solutions.
2. Validation doesn’t imply understanding.
“I get that you are angry” does not equate to “You should be angry” or “I get why you are angry”. Validating simply means that you recognize the point your partner is trying to make. You may not agree. You may think that it’s ridiculous or irrelevant. But you are acknowledging that you are listening.
3. Take the time to address both styles.
Spend some time talking about the feelings that have been expressed and then give time to address the reasoning that was also identified. By doing so, you increase the likelihood of resolution and collaboration. You are being fair to one another. You become a united front again. The undefeated tag team champions. Whatever you want to call yourselves.
4. Sometimes it is the message and not the delivery.
At times, it can be easier for us to focus on the behaviours rather than on the message or intention. We may interpret interactions based on our own beliefs and values rather than looking for alternate explanations that focus on our partner’s beliefs. Reminding ourselves that the actions or behaviours of our partners are most likely not intended to elicit malice or pain can be difficult to do wen our feelings are heightened. But it could be helpful in removing roadblocks to communication that may be avoidable.
5. Show gratitude.
Take the time to show gratitude to one another for considering a thought or feeling pattern outside of your comfort zone. Say “thank you” for listening.
Having differing communication styles can both separate and solidify your relationship. You can self-destruct or complement one another. It is not hopeless or destined to be a failure. Being in a relationship, while exciting and passionate, also requires each person to exercise a level of vulnerability that can be uncomfortable. We don’t want to get hurt but we sometimes leave ourselves open to this. That is where trust comes in and is built upon. However, although we are in a partnership with someone else, we are still individuals who have developed our communication styles and patterns throughout our life, based on our experiences with family, friends , co-workers, and strangers. These patterns are ingrained in us and are unlikely to alter.
By recognizing each other’s differing communication style, you are acknowledging that you may be stronger in one dance and your partner may be stronger in another. However, when you dance together, you are utilizing both of your strengths to reflect fluidity and gracefulness.