In the twenty-five years, I’ve been working with couples, I can say with confidence that most of them show up with the same issue. They all say they can’t communicate. What they really mean is that they both feel alone. They feel disconnected. They aren’t a team. Usually, they’re showing me that in real time. They sit on my couch — usually at opposite ends — and avoid eye contact. They look at me instead of each other. Their loneliness and despair create a gaping hole between them, pushing them away from one another instead of bringing them closer.
No one gets in a relationship to be lonely. It can be a genuinely hopeless feeling. We sign up hoping for genuine connection — that feeling of oneness that dissipates our loneliness at a deep, primal level. When that connection is broken, we feel lost, discouraged and confused.
Couples assume that everyone else has a key to a lock they can’t pick. Here’s some good news. There is a key — five keys in fact!
You can start coming closer to your partner today by employing these five keys to effective couples’ communication.
Remember those early days of the relationship? When everything was fresh and exciting and new? The conversation was fun, animated, interesting. You were constantly yearning for more. That’s because you were curious. You genuinely wanted to know the person across the table from you. And just as importantly, you wanted to be known. Somehow over the course of a relationship, this curiosity atrophies. At some point — usually, fairly early on — we make up our minds about one another. We tell ourselves we know all there is to know. Don’t fall into this trap. Instead, make it your mission to get to the bottom of things without judgment. Find out more instead of fighting more. Find out something new about your partner every day. You’d be surprised how little you really do know. Start your questions with this phrase: Help me understand…. Say it with genuine curiosity and be open to the answer. Rhetorical questions don’t count!
Curiosity naturally leads to compassion. I keep a photo of my father on my desk. In the photo, my dad is two years old, sitting in my grandmother’s lap, waving at the camera. On the back of the photo, my grandmother has written, “Ronnie waving bye-bye to his daddy.” My dad’s parents divorced when he was two. In that photo, he’s literally waving goodbye to his father — a man he will rarely see again. That heartbreaking photo reminds me that my father spent his early years without one. My willingness to be curious about my dad’s story makes me feel compassion for him. We find compassion for people when we’ve bothered to understand their pain.
Once we’ve established a safe, compassionate environment, communication comes naturally. Did you know that most successful couples don’t agree on everything? In fact, on most things, they often agree to disagree. But they communicate effectively, even in conflict. By using curiosity to create a compassionate atmosphere, they establish an environment where communication is safe even when it’s uncomfortable. Successful couples know how to avoid “evidence wars.” They give up their need for control. They ask, they listen, they learn. They choose to talk about even difficult and sensitive things without assumptions and without judgment.
Think about a sports team or a band or any group of people that requires collaboration to function effectively. On a good team, there is lots of effective collaboration. Collaboration is made possible by the first three C’s. Curiosity leads to compassion, which leads to communication. With those essential elements in place, we can make decisions as a team because we ARE a team. We’re committed to our mutual understanding of one another and we are on the same side, even when we disagree.
You don’t have to be an expert to tell which couples in a restaurant have been together the longest. Just look around. The ones who aren’t talking have given up on the connection. Now, look around again. Notice the couples who are interested in one another? Those couples are using the first four C’s – curiosity, compassion, communication, and collaboration — and they are feeling connected! They have created a safe environment to share their thoughts and stories. A connection is a natural outcome when we’ve bothered to be curious when we’ve found compassion in our hearts, when we’ve shared our deepest selves, and when we’ve truly become a team.
Next time your relationship feels lonely, challenge yourself to start asking different questions and be open to the answers. Dig deep for compassion. Communicate your thoughts and share your story. Suit up and show up as a team member instead of working against your partner. Choose to accept and value your partnership enough to lean in instead of push away. Before you know it, you’ll feel connected and that awful sense of loneliness will be replaced by the deep, affirming connection you signed up for in the first place.