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Couples who come to see me for couples/marriage counseling frequently do so because they are no longer communicating in meaningful ways. The bridges built on effective communication have deteriorated. “We just don’t talk about anything meaningful anymore”; “S/he’s more interested in texting her/his friends than spending time with me”; “I’m afraid we’re growing apart”; or some variation of these complaints are given as the reason for seeking marriage/couples counseling.
Communication may erode over time or rapidly deteriorate. You and your partner/spouse may find yourselves at odds, caught in incessant arguments; or perhaps indifference has set in, a distance that has left a silent void.
The challenge is to slowly nudge the relationship out of the negative communication patterns that have consumed it. What follows are two communication tips to get your marriage or relationship moving in the right direction.
Communication advice for couples: Understanding the message behind the complaints
1) Turn complaints into requests
We all complain at times. It’s that swell of frustration or indignation that drives us to let our partner know we are unhappy with something s/he did or said. In this regard, complaining is a type of feedback that is meant to change something that isn’t working. The difficultly is that for meaningful change to occur, the person on the receiving end of the complaint must be able to hear it and then change accordingly.
So how we complain matters.
For distressed couples, complaints often lead to a defensive counter-reaction or an emotional pulling away. This pattern just feeds the fires of negativity. One way around this dilemma is to turn a complaint into a request — focus on what you want/need rather than how your partner is messing up.
“You’re spending so much time with your friends, I don’t like it!” becomes “I haven’t been seeing much of you and I miss spending time together. I’d really like to spend all of this Saturday with you.”
“You never touch me anymore” becomes “I’m an affectionate person and I love it when you hold my hand or put your arm around me. I need more of that.”
“You’re such a neat freak! I said I’ll clean it up later” becomes “I know it’s important to you, but when I feel constantly pushed in this way, I pull away.”
2) Hear complaints as requests
We’ve all danced to the music of defensiveness — those moments when something deep and uncontrollable swirls within us that leads us to exclaim, “How DARE you…”; “You’re ALWAYS…”; “You NEVER…”; You are the MOST [fill in negative character trait] person I’ve ever known!”
Defensiveness and listening cannot exist within the same moment. One eradicates the other. So when you’re listening to your spouse/partner (really listening), you are able to be emotionally present, open and shaped by what is being expressed.
One way to keep defensiveness in check is to listen for the request that is within a complaint. It’s easy to lose sight of this since the accusatory energy that may be part of a complaint is usually what draws our attention. But when you set the intention to listen for the masked request, a different storyline starts to emerge from your spouse’s/partner’s words.
You will begin to hear themes of longing, of need, of loneliness, of fear. It is these underlying experiences that often fuel our complaints. The ideal is to speak directly from our underlying experiences — to openly express our need for greater connection and engagement.
But when we cannot do this (for whatever reason), it would be a true gift for our partner/spouse to hear our requests rather than our communication missteps. To hear the deeper request for connection, to be loved, taken seriously, appreciated…
So when we experience our spouse/partner as being too controlling, too unreasonable, too needy, too [fill in the unwanted trait], part of the problem might be that we are only hearing the surface level complaint and not the underlying request for something more important that isn’t getting named directly.
So let’s do our best to replace complaining with more direct requests of what we need. And since some complaining is an inevitable part of most intimate relationships, let’s also work to put our defensiveness aside so that we can remain open to the true meaning in our spouse’s/partner’s message.
Richard Nicastro, Ph.D. is a psychologist and couples counselor serving the Georgetown, Round Rock and Cedar Park areas. You can find out more about his services by clicking individual counseling and couples counseling. You can also contact him directly for more information.
(Featured image courtesy of Artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)