If You Want to Keep your Relationship, Stop Doing These Three Things Now.
Relationships are for adults, and adults control themselves.
Working with couples over many years reveals how little people know about healthy communication, but of course, most people know this. The idea is to send your message to the listener, have the message received and processed accurately with a result of mutual understanding. Sounds very simple, but almost no one can do it.
In short, it’s the subject, words, tone and timing we choose that leads to problems, combined with poor self-esteem. Someone with a solid and positive sense of self will have a wider tolerance to hear constructive complaints than one who perceives themselves as inferior. With those feeling not good enough, perceived negative scrutiny can be as emotionally painful as a knife through the heart. When that happens it is called a trauma response, which is a physiological activation where the brain perceives a threat. The heart starts to race, blood pressure rises and digestion stops as the listener goes into fight, flight, or freeze. Though this activation and threat response points out that an old painful theme from their past is being brought to the forefront, most people have no idea this is what’s going on. All they know is something said that sent them off and unless circumvented, the person will either lash out, run off, or freeze up. Communication then shuts down and damage will be done. Once this pattern is underway in a relationship, it will discourage future attempts to speak out, and so the pattern of “we can’t communicate” begins.
While trauma therapy helps people figure out what their trigger subjects are and takes people through a process of eliminating the emotional pain associated with them, what you can do in the meantime involves controlling yourself when you get activated and go into the fight, flight or freeze threat response. This means controlling the part of you that wants to thrash, leave or go mute and respond from the best part of yourself. The adult self.
So if my husband riles me up, my impulse might be to verbally throttle him, but instead I slow my response down and say something like, “Wow, what you said really hurt my feelings.” You have to say something, otherwise you are just falling into a freeze response and holding in and storing the negative energy that comes with it.
There are a few tips that can help keep your favorite listener from getting activated in the first place, and practicing them will serve you well …
Choose your words deliberately and carefully, and don’t do the following:
- Don’t use all-or-nothing words and phrasing like …. never, don’t, always …
“You don’t listen!”
“You don’t care!”
“You always …”
“You never …”
In all the years I’ve done couples and family therapy, I’ve never met a partner who doesn’t care, doesn’t listen, or is guilty of always or never doing XY or Z one hundred percent of the time. Talking in absolutes and mischaracterizing your partner in this way succeeds in only one thing: Getting them to disregard everything you say after that. People tend to shut down or become defensive when the accusation tossed is flat-out not true.
To get people to listen and respond, you must be precise and accurate about what you’re pointing out; instead of, “You don’t listen,” you could say, “I feel like you might not be listening when I talk because you don’t respond. I’m missing something, right?” Clarifying before reacting is crucial. Taking this wise advice will mean the difference between acting like a belligerent teenager or an adult. If you’re riled up during a conversation, stop what you’re doing, ask for a 20-minute timeout, calm yourself down and return and work it out via adult conversations that are considerate and respectful. If you’ve ever wondered what adulting is, know that it is controlling yourself.
2. Unless complimenting or praising another, do not begin a critique, or any sentence, with the word, “You.” (See examples above).
When you begin a sentence with the word “You,” the listener’s brain often goes on criticism alert. Criticism kills relationships, so we need to not do it. It’s best to talk about what you’re experiencing when the person does the thing that annoys you.
Don’t tell me I’m always late. Instead tell me it makes you nervous when I’m not on time.
Don’t tell me you despise when I drink too much, tell me you’re not attracted to me when I drink too much.
Don’ tell me I don’t care, because I do. Instead tell me that sometimes you feel disconnected because you haven’t had enough (Fill in the blank) attention, quality time, affection, sex, help, flirting, etc.
When you choose your words accurately and phrase them in a way that doesn’t sound like finger-pointing, most reasonable humans will listen and work to meet your needs.
3. Another disastrous way couples communicate is by going scorched earth, which is the use of relationship and love-ending language. This should never be done unless you really mean it.
“I am done!”
“I want a divorce!”
“I hate you!”
We all get angry in our relationships, that part is normal. What isn’t normal — or healthy, is to talk in drastic terms that you don’t really mean. From your side, you want to wound the other person, perhaps because they wounded you, but this is childish thinking. Look deeper at what’s going on, a partner who feels unheard or disregarded eventually reaches a crescendo of stress and explodes with verbal shrapnel or some sort of dysfunctional reaction. This is the worst time to talk about your feelings or anything else. It’s far better to calm down, then come back and calmly discuss what isn’t working. This is when we can access the better part of our personality. I train my clients to understand that things said while a person is highly activated are usually extreme exaggerations and don’t represent how the person truly feels. If they spoke accurately, they’d say something like “In this moment I am so angry with you that I feel like I’m done, but I know that I’m not.”
Using relationship or love-ending language strikes at every human’s worst fears — rejection and abandonment, and I promise you a bad result if you say things like this without meaning it. Some things once said, cannot be unheard or unremembered. This also goes along with talking cruelly about them as a human being or their physical features. Someone I know once became furious with her partner and told him he had a crooked little penis. That was a lethal blow from which they could not recover. If you can’t see anything wrong with that, as this person couldn’t, “It’s not wrong because it’s true,” she said, then you really do have deeper issues than a self-help blog can offer.
Becky Whetstone, Ph.D., LMFT, LPC, PSEP, is a Marriage & Family Therapist in Little Rock, Arkansas and does telehealth as a therapist and life coach all over the USA. To contact her visit her website at www.DoctorBecky.com or email becky@nullDoctorBecky.com.