Love is not disposable. That’s been a hard lesson for me to learn. Communication within a relationship is hard enough to navigate, but if you haven’t had healthy or stable examples of what a positive one should look like, then it’s even more difficult.
For some of us, when a partner hurts us or we feel fear, our instincts tell us it’s easier to cut and run than stay and work things out, for fear of getting more hurt. The flight or fight phenomenon takes full effect, and many of us choose flight. Sometimes it’s warranted, but sometimes it’s not.
To increase the likelihood of a permanent partnership, in your moments of deepest fear, you must turn toward your partner, not away. This can be easier said than done, I know. But, if you tend to shut down and isolate yourself instead of communicating, you are adding to the divide. When in doubt, turn toward.
Dr. John Gottman wrote about “The Four Horsemen,” four debilitating ways couples argue that signify that the relationship is doomed. One of the four is stonewalling, in which one person shuts down, ignores the other, or altogether stops communicating. This can be the easy way out sometimes because it’s much harder to force yourself to turn toward your partner when you are hurt. Remember, though, turning AWAY furthers the divide. It will not help you get what you want. As understandable as those feelings are, this behavior will only add to your pain.
So, what are healthy ways to navigate “rough patches” in a relationship? How are you supposed to know if this is merely a rough patch or indicative of a bigger, long-term issue?
Don’t you wish there were a checklist of sorts to help you work through this? Well, here it is! You’re welcome! In all seriousness, let’s dive into the anatomy of a relationship conundrum and analyze the steps to work through it.
As you read today’s article, use a situation from your romantic relationship that applies. Therapists often say that couples fight about the same few issues throughout their time together. Common topics include how money is spent or saved, how they are parenting, and sex. What is a reoccurring issue in your relationship? Or, what is an issue you are facing right now? Whatever immediately came to your mind, use that as your example as you read this.
First step: How are you speaking to each other?
You hear all the time that “communication is key,” and it is, but that’s a scary point because it’s soooooo easy to communicate in a way that doesn’t serve the relationship. To begin with, we “hear” in different ways. We all have different backgrounds and experiences that color our perception of what is being communicated. Sometimes when I listen, I hear them from a place of fear as a child. I’ve worked through many of my childhood issues, but our early memories shape the way we think, so sometimes those experiences still filter what I’m hearing.
Additionally, men and women are very different. Thanks, Queen Obvious. We know that, but we easily forget that when we are in the throes of an argument and when we are trying to make sense of what is happening in real-time. In the middle of a heated discussion, we are focused on the words being said and trying to simultaneously process them. The emotion makes it easy to forget that we hear messages and meanings differently than our partner.
We might think our partner means one thing, but in reality, he or she meant something else. We don’t realize that, though, that if we don’t follow-up and ask; hence, communication. What we often do instead, is internalize the message, stew over it, and let it explode in a few days or months. Um, not healthy.
Let’s examine specifically HOW you speak to one another. Another of Gottman’s “Four Horsemen” is sarcasm. Are you sarcastic with one another? Passive aggressive? Short? If so, ask yourself, what is your intent behind how you are communicating? Are you trying to hurt your partner? Gain control? Take out your insecurities on him or her? These examples produce negative effects in the relationship, but if we don’t check ourselves, they are easy to enact.
Reflect on your last argument with your partner. What is the single thing that upset you the most? Did you feel disrespected? Threatened (not physically)? Judged? Talked down to?
Second step: Be purposeful with your wording.
Because we have the potential to hear each other so differently than we intend, when your partner hurts you, you must be extremely specific with your wording. I completely understand that your fight or flight instincts are likely kicking into high gear right now, but if you are going to make progress, then you need to hunker down and try to communicate the best you can.
Choose your words carefully so that there is the least likely chance he or she could misinterpret them. Communicate with “I” statements instead of starting off with “You…” because the latter can cause instant defensiveness. Instead of saying “You,” target the behavior. For instance:
- I feel humiliated when you post compliments about another woman on social media.
- I feel hurt when you make comments that show you think I’m not managing the finances well.
- I feel unappreciated when I spend time cleaning the house and cooking dinner and then you complain about us being out of something.
- I am concerned that I’ve told you several times that this hurts me, and you don’t do anything to help the situation.
This needs to transition into what you need to happen to rectify the situation. Let’s review the above examples again.
- What I would like for you to do is unfriend this person or not post personal responses to her.
- I would appreciate, if you have a concern, if you bring it up directly and sincerely instead of with sarcasm or comments that targeted toward my character.
- It would be nice if you added items you need from the grocery store to the list in the kitchen instead of complaining. I would really appreciate it if you could compliment me more often about our home and acknowledge the time I spend to make it comfortable for everyone.
- I need you to hear how hurt I am and alter what you’ve been doing.
This, then, needs to transition into what you fear the consequences will be if the situation continues. Again, let’s review the above examples.
- I’m worried that if you keep flirting with her, then it will create a divide between us, you might develop feelings for her, or I might need time away from you.
- I’m concerned that unhealthy communication about our finances will lead us to keep purchases or financial issues a secret from one another, which will cause us to not be aligned.
- I’m worried that I will develop resentment toward you and that it will affect how I feel about you.
- I’m scared that this could blow up into something bigger, that could have long-term consequences in our relationship.
I’m not telling you to issue an ultimatum, but you need to be very clear about what is causing you pain, what you need to change, and how it will affect you if the situation remains the same.
Step three: Assess
Now comes the even scarier part. How is your partner reacting to your direct statements and concerns? Hopefully, your purposeful communication can be a starting point for change. If he or she continues the behavior that causes you pain, you must wonder why. If you have repeatedly been direct, and your partner understands that their actions are causing you hurt, and he or she STILL chooses to do it, then that in itself is an even bigger issue.
Friend, if this is resonating, I encourage you to consider individual and/or couples counseling. We sometimes tell our besties about issues in our relationship, but it can help to have a trained, outside perspective to mediate what’s happening. If you visit with a counselor, he or she views the situation impartially and can help interpret how you are communicating in real-time. The level of emotion is so high at this point that it might be hard for you to see past your pain. You need to get perspective from someone who isn’t invested in you or the relationship.
If you ask your partner to go to couples counseling, and he or she refuses, go on your own. You need to make sense of what is happening and help to assess your next steps. There are a million ways that relationships can be wondrous and beneficial, but they are also HARD WORK. Turn toward your partner, prioritize your mental health, and seek help for perspective.
What is a huge issue you are facing with your partner right now? Do you argue about the same topics? Which step resonated the most with you today? Comment below!
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