We have all heard horror stories of couples that degraded into roommates, passing each other silently in the hall on the way to work, resigned to the loneliness and the loathing. In my practice, clients often describe such painful disconnections as the result of not feeling heard or understood—problems with communication.
Anyone who is married likely had a conversation with themselves, and maybe even with his/her partner about how they are in it for the long haul. But how do we maintain connection across a lifetime? Whether you are starting out in a marriage or are hoping to salvage a sinking one, here are three steps to connecting through skillful communication.
Know your past
We often find ourselves repeating the relational patterns of our parents or early caregivers. The nagging mother and withdrawn father teach their children that relationships are about making demands and avoiding those demands in equal measure.
Parents with substance use disorders require children to function in adult roles early in life, instilling their children with the belief that their needs will always be less important than everyone else’s. Regardless of the health or toxicity of our earliest relationship models, we cannot change that which we cannot identify. By intentionally and non-judgmentally examining the ways in which our parents taught us to communicate, whether through passive aggression, creating crises, or gentle openness, we manifest the possibility for changing the course of our own relationships. There is power in the recognition that we withhold affection to communicate our anger (just like mom!) or in acknowledging our tendency to shut down when our partners are hurting (just like dad!). Communication styles are the product of instruction, not unchangeable aspects of character or personality.
Know your present
A major barrier to effective communication is the lack of presence. How often have you found yourself building a case for your current anger at your spouse by remembering all the things he has done to annoy you over the past 7 years? After such an anger-filtered search of our histories, we are inevitably going to have a reaction that is not proportional to the situation, eroding connection and trust in the process. The key problem is that we are more familiar with engaging the past than we are experiencing the present. We create no-win situations for ourselves and our partners when any past offense is fair game for resurrection, which we often do when we doubt the relevance of our current feelings.
A regular mindfulness practice of breathing, noticing thoughts and feelings that arise, and letting them go makes it possible to address current interactions without the baggage of the past impacting our choices.
Know your partner
One of the supposed joys of marriage is knowing someone and being known so well that you can complete each other’s sentences. While we all feel the pull toward this sort of acceptance and certainty, the downside is that it requires a rigid way of seeing our partners. Words like “always” and “never” creep into our understanding and make it difficult to experience our partners as they are in the moment. If my husband always forgets to lock the car, then I will probably snap at him about it rather than asking him politely to check the locks. If my wife never asks me about my work, I may be cold and withdrawn after a rough day in lieu of asking for her support. The stories we tell ourselves about what our spouses are like impacts how we interpret interactions and how we respond. Remaining curious about our partners supports open communication, inflexible assumptions wall us off from each other.
The poet Rumi wisely wrote:
“Task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
To break down these barriers, we have to own our problematic communication patterns with kindness and without judgement. By exploring the lessons from our pasts, practicing presence, and allowing our partners room to grow and change, we can build a strong foundation of trust and openness that just might last a lifetime.