The words you use (and don’t use) continually shape your relationship.
If you believe the above statement to be true, this has real implications for your marriage (and relationships in general). It means you have significant influence in your relationship, an influence that arises from the word choices you make while communicating with your spouse/partner.
I realize it may not always feel like you have a choice about how to talk to your husband or wife, especially if s/he is doing something that’s making you feel out of your mind with frustration. Feeling badgered by your partner to do something or trying to connect with someone who is emotionally checked-out can stir strong feelings that interfere with our best communication efforts.
This is often where communication breakdowns happen, when we’re pushed past our emotional threshold by our anger, hurt or despair. It’s a real challenge for any of us to speak from an emotionally-centered place when we feel disrespected, ignored, chastised or betrayed by our spouse/partner. I think most of us can attest to the fact that it’s not always easy to put our best communication foot forward.
But we do need ideals to reach for so we don’t get completely lost along the way.
The goal is to avoid falling down the communication rabbit hole by being mindful of the words you use. Let’s turn our attention to how to communicate with your spouse/partner by focusing on what to avoid in order to improve your communication efforts.
How to Communicate with Your Spouse/Partner: What to Avoid While Communicating
In my work with couples, I’ve seen firsthand how our use of language can open us up more fully to another (thereby deepening emotional connection), and also how our words can close us off emotionally, causing a major breakdown in communication.
Here are three messages you and your partner might be using during conflicts or in the pre-conflict stage of communication (sometimes without noticing it). These messages can have a negative impact on your communication efforts (thereby preventing emotional closeness).
1) “You’re getting/being defensive.”
We all get defensive from time to time. What this usually means is that we are either feeling attacked or so misunderstood by our partner that we can no longer remain open to what is being communicated. So we close ourselves off, emotionally bobbing and weaving like a boxer in an effort to not get hurt any further. Entering into a defensive mode often happens automatically once we feel attacked (though there are things we can do to reduce our defensiveness or increase it, if so desired).
Said differently, when we’re defensive, we are trying to protect ourselves.
To say to your partner, “You’re getting (or being) defensive” is an accusation — and the person on the receiving end of this statement is more likely to remain in his/her protective-defensive position.
So don’t kid yourself into believing that you are giving your partner valuable information when you tell them that they’re being defensive. The truth is, you’re judging them in that moment and they’re likely to feel judged and act accordingly.
2) “Just calm down.”
Telling your partner to “calm down” (or to “just relax”) when s/he is upset isn’t a good idea (unless your ultimate goal is to further upset him/her). And when we tell our partner this, our message is usually cloaked in a condescending attitude.
The spouse/partner on the receiving end of a “calm down” message usually believes their distress is justified (they probably wouldn’t be upset otherwise); therefore, their perception is that their feelings are being invalidated or dismissed when they’re told to calm down (or “take it easy” or “chill” or some such variation whose subtext is “I’ve determined that you’re too upset for the situation”).
“Don’t you dare tell me to calm down!” is usually hurled back as a response in these moments. Obviously, productive communication can’t occur when each side becomes more and more entrenched in places that are so far apart from each other.
If you find that you’re about to lob a “calm down” message at your partner, think about why you might say this. Is your partner’s distress making you feel distressed? Are you concerned for him/her in that moment? Is your goal to keep the conversation from spiraling further out of control?
Remember, when we receive the message to “calm down” (no matter how well-intended the speaker might’ve been), all we really end up hearing is, “You’re being too much”; “You’re acting crazy”; “You’re excessive (irrational).”
What we don’t hear is, “I love you and I want to reconnect emotionally, but our intense feelings are getting in the way, so why don’t we take a few minutes to regroup and start again from a more emotionally-centered place?” Feel free to say this latter message all you want to your partner when you find yourselves in an emotionally-heated place. You’ll see that it’s greatly preferable to “calm down.”
3) “You should…” (“Why don’t you…?”; “Why didn’t you…?”)
When thinking about how to communicate with your spouse more effectively, it’s important to note that the way your message is sent can make all the difference between it being received by your partner or it being rejected by him/her.
A “You should have” (or a “Why didn’t you”) statement can feel like a reprimand or judgment to the receiver of this message.
As one wife shared about her husband’s “You should have…” statements:
“It feels like he’s treating me like a child when he talks that way. And there’s usually a condescending tone in his voice. No matter what follows the “you should have,” all I hear is that he knows what’s best and I’ve messed up again. I get so mad when he does that!”
If your spouse/partner asks for your advice, saying “Why don’t you…” would probably be welcome. But heavy-handed, unsolicited directives about what your partner “should” or “shouldn’t” do is likely to fuel defensiveness and withdrawal rather than the openness that is the ultimate goal of effective couples communication.
Think of your marriage or intimate relationship as a classroom that offers ongoing lessons for how to talk to your spouse or partner in ways that can deepen the connection that feeds you. And like any lesson, there are things we can do more of and things that we should avoid if possible.
Today’s blog post focused on what to avoid while communicating with your partner. Your knowledge about your partner’s vulnerabilities should also guide you in what should and shouldn’t be said within your relationship.
We all have particular vulnerabilities that make us susceptible to feeling hurt, rejected or marginalized. Let this information be your guide to shaping your communication in ways that continually feed and strengthen your relationship.
What would you and your partner add to the above list? What words and messages are likely to send you down the dark ally of defensiveness? What particular words/messages (and tone of voice) shut you down or make you want to pull away from your spouse/partner?
Setting the intention to use this information for the betterment of your marriage/relationship can also build mutual trust.
Here’s to better communication!
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured image courtesy of Akarakingdoms at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)