If your relationship is stuck in a cycle of blame, you probably wonder what happened to the feelings that brought you together.
Don’t despair! It is possible to recapture the intimacy by learning a few simple tools of nonviolent communication for couples.
What follows are based on Marshall Rosenberg’s groundbreaking work, Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life.
Rather than to tell your partner what he/she did wrong, try starting out with a simple observation. For example, instead of, “You always procrastinate,” try saying, “Jim only studies for exams the night before.”
By removing the judgment, you are less likely to wind up in an argument. When you start a sentence with “you” or “you always…” your partner will hear it as criticism and probably become defensive.
Imagine there is a car accident on the freeway, and it makes your husband late to pick you up. A response like, “You’re always late, I can’t believe how inconsiderate you are!” is filled with blame.
Try calmly stating the behavior you observe without evaluation. If you say, “You’re 30 minutes late, or “when you’re late I feel (impatient, angry, worried, etc.),” you’re off to a better start.
Using nonviolent communication to nurture your relationships starts with learning how to express your feelings in a healthy way.
However, expressing feelings is trickier than it sounds. For example, “I feel like you’re always criticizing me,” uses the word feel, but is more about your partner’s behavior than about what you feel.
A healthier way to phrase it would be: “I feel hurt when you tell me I didn’t do a good job.” To keep the feelings about you, try words like angry, embarrassed, scared, worried, frustrated, heartbroken.
If your objective is to get your partner to understand you, attacking them will be counterproductive.
Even when we think our feelings are caused by the other person, this is rarely the case. Their actions may trigger our feelings, but there is more at play. Most of our negative feelings are rooted in unmet needs.
To get your needs met, you must first understand what they are. If you say things like, “I’m angry because you…” you’re back into the cycle of blame.
But if you replace it with “I’m angry because I need it…” you are more likely to be heard and get what you want.
We get away with telling our kids, “I need you to pick up your toys,” but what we really need is order or cooperation.
Sometimes all we need is to be heard, or “validated.” Here are some words that will help you best express your needs.
“I need… appreciation, honesty, compassion, acceptance, connection, etc.” So, if you’re partner’s late, it’s better to say, “I need consideration, so I can be on time to this important interview.”
That gets the point across better than yelling, “I need you to be on time!”
Learning how best to express your needs to your partner will definitely help you to strengthen your relationships with nonviolent communication.
The last step in Rosenberg’s model involves making a request. Some examples of useful requests are, “Would you be willing to leave a little earlier next time, when you know I have an interview?”
Or “Would you be willing to look me in the eyes when you talk?” Or even, “Would you be willing to admit that you made a mistake?” This kind of language helps restore a more empathetic connection and head off conflict.
Nonviolent Communication Model
The NVC model depends on observation, feelings, needs and requests. You can try it out using the following model:
When I see or hear_______________, I feel____________________, because I need______________________. Would you be willing to ___________________________________?
Or to go back to our original example: When you’re 30 minutes late, I feel angry, because I need consideration. Would you be willing to leave a little earlier next time to avoid the traffic?
I often ask clients, which is more important, to be right or to be loved?
When we’re invested in proving how much our partner has wronged us, we can disregard their feelings and damage the relationship. If we’re clear about what we want back, we’re much more likely to get it.
Nonviolent communication is more than an exercise in language. Above all, it depends on empathy. And yet, we have a strong urge in our culture to give advice or reassurance or to explain our own position first.
Empathy strengthens relationships because it is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. It calls on us to empty our minds and listen with our whole beings.
Through nonviolent communication in a relationship we learn to give empathy, allowing others to fully express themselves. When we think they are done, we can even ask if there is more.
When someone realizes they have received full empathetic understanding, we can visibly see their relief. The tension is released from their bodies and they physically relax.
Paraphrasing can also help if you’re not sure how to empathize. It encourages your partner to think about why they’re upset, rather than worrying about how you’ll respond.
For example, if someone tells you, “My child is impossible. No matter what I do he doesn’t listen.”
We might reflect their feelings by saying, “It sounds like you’re frustrated and want to find a better way to connect with your son.”
Here are some examples that you and your partner can practice:
Instead of: “You never talk to me at dinner and I’m sick of it!”
Try: “When you’re silent at dinner I feel lonely because I need some connection. Would you be willing to ask about my day and engage with me for just 10 minutes?”
Instead of: “You’ve been working late every night this week. You clearly love your work more than you love me.”
Try: “When I’m home alone at night I feel lonely because I need more intimacy. Would you be willing to reassure me that you still value our marriage?”
Nonviolent communication in a relationship may sound stilted at first, but with a little practice, you’ll be on your way to healthier communication.