It’s often said that good communication is essential to a healthy relationship but it’s rare for anyone to define what that really means. Many couples are caught up in negative patterns of relating without the tools to turn around this dynamic, so they have ineffective ways to deal with conflict.
The dark space of yelling at each other
For instance, Teresa and Tim, both in their late 30’s, have two school-age children and lead busy lives working full-time, taking care of their children, and volunteering in their community. Teresa came to my office complaining that she’s been unhappy for some time with her husband, Tim. He agreed that they don’t connect very well and often bicker over small things and have heated disputes.
Teresa put it like this: “I don’t usually ask for what I want because when I do, Tim gives me an attitude and we get into a fight. So, lately I’m avoiding talking to him about daily stuff and it feels like we’re roommates rather than spouses. But the other day when we discussed bills we ending up yelling at each other and issuing ultimatums.”
Tim responds, “Teresa is right, we rarely spend time together or have sex anymore. When we do talk, it’s usually about the kids or bills and we end up arguing and sleeping in separate beds that night.”
Assertive communication is vital to healthy relating
There are three common styles of communicating in relationships: non-assertive or passive, aggressive, and assertive. The most effective style is assertive.
Assertive people tend to have higher self-esteem because they’re able to communicate honestly and effectively without allowing others to dominate them. They also respect others rights. The following description will help you identify both yours and your partner’s style.
Non-assertive or passive
Non-assertive communicators can be unwilling to share their thoughts, feelings, or desires and be completely honest because they’re overly concerned about offending others feelings.
Alternatively, they might want to avoid criticism. They usually cause partners to feel confused, angry, mistrustful, or resentful.
On the other hand, they often have low self-esteem and feel insecure in relationships – complaining that they don’t get their needs met and others really don’t care about them.
Aggressive communicators can be critical, blaming, and prone to making harsh comments to others.
These statements often start with “You” statements such as “You’re so rude and never care about my feelings.” Partners who communicate aggressively usually focus on the negative aspects of their mate and are unwilling to accept responsibility for their own actions.
As a result, their partner is left feeling hurt, alienated, and mistrustful.
Assertive communicators are honest and effective without being bossy.
They speak up for what they want in a clear, direct way while being respectful toward others. Assertive communicators don’t encourage defensiveness. In fact, they discourage arguments and promote compromise with a “we’re in this together” approach that’s non-blameful.
Fortunately, when one person communicates assertively, the dynamic usually generalize to the other person and even children.
For example, assertive response to your partner forgetting to call you might be “I feel hurt when you don’t call when you’re running late. I worry about you.” This response uses an “I” statement and gives information to your spouse in an open, honest, and non-accusing way so it encourages positive communication.
An important piece of marriage advice that can change the dynamic in an argument, is to make sure your positive statements outweigh your negative ones by a ratio of five to one.
In Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Dr. John Gottman says that the difference between happy and unhappy couples is the balance of positive to negative comments during disputes. This strategy works because it shifts the focus from criticism and blame to becoming more assertive about your needs and emotionally connected with your partner.
How to use “I” statements
Now that you’re aware of various unproductive behaviors and the damage they can do to your marriage, it’s time to listen and respond more positively to your partner.
Change starts with you
One fairly simple yet highly effective way of short-circuiting a negative cycle of relating to your spouse is using “I” statements.
An “I” statement is an assertive statement about your thoughts or feelings that doesn’t place blame or pass harsh judgment on your spouse. It encourages your partner to hear what you say and not get defensive.
In contrast, a “You” statement, which is negative and usually places blame on the other person – can cause them to become guarded, angry, or withdrawn.
Invaluable marriage advice to follow is accepting responsibility. Accepting responsibility for your actions and feelings is one of the most important aspects of communication and using an “I”. The statement is a good way to do this. There are three aspects of using “I” statements effectively:
I statements, beginning with something like, “I feel” disclose your feelings and reflect a self-disclosure, and don’t come across as accusing your partner when you say “You make me feel”.
Statements that begin with “When you..” are often reflective of opinions, threats, harsh criticism, or callous ultimatums. These words or behaviors create defensiveness.
It is an invaluable tool to explain why you experience or feel the way you do when your partner says or does something. Also, include your interpretation of their actions and behaviors and how it affected you. However, do this without sounding accusatory.
Being vulnerable with your partner improves trust
After you’ve been practicing assertive communication for about a week, it’s a good idea to check-in with your spouse and see if you notice any improvement.
If you do, celebrate by enjoying an evening out or a special dinner at home. However, if you don’t notice any positive change, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with a couples’ therapist who is trained to help partners to improve their communication.
When one partner practices effective communication, it has a spillover effect on their partner to do the same. This can actually change the dynamic in the relationship.
Communication affects how safe and secure you feel with your partner, as well as your level of intimacy.
It is important to be vulnerable in a relationship
It’s a challenge, to be honest with a person who you cannot trust. You might worry they will respond in a negative or hurtful way.
For instance, Teresa is extending trust to Tim when she says “I could really use your support with the kids tonight so I can grade papers.” She’s stating her request in a positive way, using an “I” statement, being vulnerable, and not assuming the worst of him.
Keep in mind that being vulnerable in a relationship and communicating your authentic feelings assertively, while paying attention to your partner’s emotional sensitivities, takes time and practice.
Most people rush in to offering solutions and solving problems and skip over listening and validating their partner’s feelings. You can strengthen your marriage by improving your communication and making a commitment to learning more about each other every day!