We are a culture that is hungry for information. And it’s easy to quickly become overloaded by the enormous amount of information that is available on any given topic. And to complicate matters, it’s not uncommon to receive contradictory messages about the same issue.
In the couples workshops I lead, I often tell participants to take one point or piece of information from the workshop that really speaks to them and try to incorporate it into their relationship (rather than trying to change several things at once).
In other words, despite the amount of information available, it’s important to keep it simple.
In an effort to avoid information overload, I want to make the same suggestion to you. In the five points discussed below, pick one that makes the most sense to you (and your relationship dynamics), and if it feels right, use it in your relationship.
If you try to change too much too soon, the entire change-for-the-better enterprise can grind to a halt.
5 Points for Better Communication
1) Keep It Clear
Communication in marriage can get pretty messy. It’s very painful to have breakdowns in communication become the norm despite your best intentions. So when you are communicating something important, keep your message clear. Give some attention to the point you want to make and try not to jump around to different topics. Trying to make several points at once can overwhelm the other person and makes for a defensive, emotionally closed-off listener.
The clarity rule is essential for effective communication.
Too often when our emotions are running high, our ability to stay clear and on point becomes compromised. So take a few breaths to help self-regulate and to keep yourself focused on the communication task at hand. Remember, the clearer the message, the more likely your spouse/partner will understand what you are sharing. And isn’t that the goal of effective communication?
2) Start with Self-Understanding
Most of us know what we don’t want. Our ongoing feelings of being upset or unhappy or frustrated inform us that something about our life or relationship isn’t working.
Identifying what we truly do want can be a more complicated process than figuring out what we don’t want. Knowing what you want/need is an important part of the communication process.
It’s the place we should launch from.
An important step toward greater self-clarity is to ask yourself, “What do I want in this instance?” You may want to repeat this question more than once. And what happens next is very important: Focus inward. Spend some time in silence to connect with the deeper layers of yourself. This process is important because what comes immediately to mind may not be what you truly need.
Sometimes our deepest truths make themselves known by a whisper that requires attentive listening — so put your metaphoric ear to your heart and pay attention.
But even in this case, some discernment can be helpful:
- Why do I want this (why do I think I want this)?
- Is getting this need/want met consistent with my values and goals?
- What do I imagine would change for me if this want/need is consistently met?
- Is it possible that my current focus on a particular want is distracting me from something more important that requires attention?
3) Expanding Your Perspective-Experiences
The deep level of mutual knowing that is part of intimate relationships is comforting. The familiarity that is part of a long-term relationship gives us a sense of security — knowing the other and being known by him/her grounds us emotionally. It feeds the emotional bond that connects us.
But the we-know-each-other-better-than-anyone-else dynamic can also have a downside.
It can close us off to experiencing one another with fresh eyes. When this occurs, we become locked into a narrowed perspective. So while relationship predictability is emotionally anchoring, it can become stifling at some point.
Be mindful of the power your expectations have over your partner (and vice versa). When our expectations bring an unquestioning level of certainty about one another, we become closed off to new experiences (as well as the subtlety of experience). This dynamic can lock each of you into a rigid relational pattern, and once this occurs, you become numb to what is unfolding before you.
So don’t forget to question your assumptions about each other every now and then and seek the new (even if you have to do a little work to find it!).
4) Remaining Open to Each Other
This is an extension to the idea of expanding your perspective discussed above. It’s impossible to remain open to your partner and defensive at the same time. It’s impossible to be open to your partner if the arrogance of omniscience is at work.
Openness to the influence of each other is built upon mutual trust, a secure knowledge that your best interest is a top priority for your spouse/partner.
True openness to another means being malleable to their influence. In relationships where mutuality is the goal, you are both shaper and shapee of what is unfolding. For this to occur, pretense must give way to humility.
But it’s not just the conditions of our marriage or relationship that determine our ability to open ourselves up emotionally to another. Our deep-seated expectations stemming from childhood also impact our capacity for intimacy. One way to know that the long-arm of your past is influencing you is when you find yourself stuck in a self-protective mode of relating even though you realize your partner is trustworthy. Part of you holds back even when you’re encouraged to be vulnerable and share your feelings with a loving, kind other.
For more information about how underlying fear can impact your relationship, click fear of intimacy (please note, this link takes you to my Strengthen Your Relationship blog)
5) Regular Check-Ins
Too often couples avoid addressing important marital and relationship issues — in these instances, a prolonged incubation period of pain and resentment takes hold. These below-the-surface feelings can have a dramatic impact on how you relate to and feel about each other.
As these feelings build, their intensity can make communication challenging.
One proactive way to address the accumulation of toxic feelings is to regularly check in with each other. These regularly-scheduled meetings are designed to address how the relationship is going and assess if there are any deeper discussions that should occur. Many couples may avoid these meetings out of concern that they are just an invitation for excessive complaining and negativity.
Criticalness and finger-pointing shouldn’t be the goal of these check-ins. To counter this possibility, it will be important to structure your check-ins so that positive change is more likely.
Here are two questions that can guide these discussions:
- What can we each change that would benefit the marriage? (Focus on yourself rather than on your partner.)
- What is working well that we’d each like to see continue/grow?
When trying to improve our marriage/relationship, we look for proof that our efforts are making a difference. So we monitor our spouse’s/partner’s reactions to our attempts to be more patient, emotionally present, kind, loving, etc. And when we don’t see the change we believe should mirror our noble efforts, we get frustrated with our partner and give up trying to improve things.
Ideally (and I realize this is easier said than done), we would forge ahead with our relationship-improvement efforts and not let our partner’s cynicism or lack of effort deter us. They may have what feels to them like very legitimate reasons for not responding positively to our efforts. (Or they may need more time in order to trust that the positive changes will be ongoing rather than fleeting.)
So rather than focusing on your partner, focus your attention on your own efforts. After all, your own efforts are the only aspect of the relationship you truly have the power to change.
Wishing you and your relationship all the best!
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured image courtesy of Photostock by FreeDigitalPhoto.net)