I witnessed an interesting event at a restaurant recently.
At the table next to where my wife and I were sitting, a woman was trying to decide on what to order. While the others in her party took a few moments to decide on what they each wanted to eat, when it was this woman’s turn to order, she kept telling the waiter the items she didn’t want (“The chicken sounds good, but I’m not in the mood for chicken”; “I don’t want the pasta”; “I don’t think I would like any of the specials,” and so on).
What was amusing at first eventually began to frustrate her friends, and by the time she finally ordered, the waiter appeared pretty flustered. And, unfortunately, this communication dynamic (focusing on what you don’t want) often occurs in marriages and relationships.
Couples Communication 101: Start with What You Want
All couples complain from time to time, and this type of feedback is an important part of effective communication—when you discover what doesn’t work for your spouse/partner or you learn about his/her dislikes, you can shape the relationship to avoid these pitfalls whenever possible.
But too often, couples get in the habit of complaining to the point where it becomes their communication default position—when this occurs, a larger portion of their interactions and shared experiences become about:
- What isn’t working in the marriage or relationship;
- Dissatisfaction about something that was said or done (“Why did you…?”; “Why didn’t you…?”; “You always…!”; “You never…!”);
- What each doesn’t want/need (“I don’t feel like going to a movie this weekend”; “I hate when you don’t follow through”; “I don’t want to have sex tonight”).
Couples who focus exclusively on what is lacking have a tired, beleaguered look to them. They feel defeated, they feel like they can do no right, and worse, they end up feeling hopeless. When this occurs, they stop trying. (Why would you keep putting your hand in a fire?)
Frankly, focusing on what you don’t want is easier than focusing on what you really want or need. The latter requires slowing down and turning inward (self-reflection)…and this is when the work really begins. You may need to sort through different feelings only to find a sea of ambivalence or uncertainty. This process involves an inner relationship with your feelings, wants and desires. Without this, communication will remain superficial and unfulfilling at best.
And then communication must proceed to a statement of commitment: first to yourself (acknowledging the truth of what you really want/need), and then to the other (making your needs and desires publicly known and hoping your partner is responsive to this). While this process sounds complicated and labor-intensive, you probably already do it at times. But the starting point always begins with a question to oneself:
What do I really want?
Ask yourself this simple yet powerful question and listen closely to what arises within you. Knowing your psychological needs starts with careful listening beyond the obvious rumblings of what you don’t want.
Couples Communication Resource
Effective couples communication is essential to a healthy and fulfilling marriage or relationship. To add easy-to-use communication strategies to your relationship toolbox, check out my communication workbook.
Until next time!
Dr. Rich Nicastro