We didn’t communicate well. I hear several times a day this reason as to why a relationship didn’t work from lovely humans who were once part of a lovely couple. But we are smart people, Friend, so how does communication go so wrong? Surely we know how to say please and thank you by now and not to say you look fat in that tie when we can just as easily say I love that blue one on you, handsome.
Well grab your buttered popcorn and M&M’s, today I am going to give you some life changing, relationship saving communication hacks. But first let’s consider these very important underlying truths.
Communication problems are never just about communication.
And, relationship problems are never just about communication.
No one struggles to tell their partner “This amazing thing happened to me today” or “I found a hundred dollar bill in the street” or “I just saved a kitten from drowning, again”. Unless you are married to a proper narcissist in which case your kitten saving will be twisted into a fatal flaw disguised as a half joke intended to undermine your worth (it’s just like you to prioritize a kitten over our relationship you’re adorable but useless always putting us last). But for everyone else, good news is not a problem. Sharing your day to day is not a problem. How to articulate directions to somewhere is…well you just turn left at that orange thingy, you know the one, 3 right turns after you turn off the main road. Simple!
The kinds of communications that run us into tricky territory involve FEELINGS, but not just any feelings, they involve HURTY feelings, and all of those merry little ideas we attach to our hurty feelings.
We don’t need a partner to feel hurt. We humans are constantly navigating the waters of emotional pain, and negotiating our circumstances in order to feel less pain and more happy. But because we don’t have a lot of training in understanding our own inner communication, I’m feeling vulnerable right now and really need some reassurance can become It’s really disgusting how you spit toothpaste on the mirror when you brush in the shake of a lamb’s tail. I mean if you’ve never been to a petting zoo, that’s bloody fast.
Emotional pain is a gauge lighting up on the dashboard of life. It calls for love. I mean sure it sounds hokey, but when something feels bad the last thing we need is to be shamed for it. The only meaningful response to distress is a kind one. You can’t stop a car from overheating by driving it harder. You’re going to need some coolant.
The problem happens when our love interest becomes our first platform for negotiating our feelings.
Distress within ourselves can easily become irritation with the person closest to us or something they do differently than we do. Also that distress can trigger old unresolved wounds within ourselves, fear of being loved, fear of being abandoned, a general panic at not being in control that attaches itself to our nearest and dearest. Sometimes all of the above occur simultaneously and steam leaks out of the hood of the car with a hiss.
Which bring me to communication HACK NUMBER ONE: Ask yourself what you are feeling and why before you try to find a diplomatic way to say “you’re doing it wrong”. You’re going to need to learn to be kind to yourself if you’re going to get the best out of a romantic relationship, so whatever you are feeling, answer it first with kindness toward yourself. Often what you are struggling with isn’t about THEM. If and when you are going to bring something to the relationship conversation table, please consider how you want to feel once you’ve said it, or talked it out. We will naturally choose healthier more compassionate communication when we identify the feeling outcome that we want; for example we may actually want to feel reassured when we are afraid and calling them out for not texting likely won’t get us that.
HACK NUMBER TWO: Be aware of your body language and your non-verbal communication. If you are tense and quiet while you say “I’m good” you are actually communicating that you are too upset to talk about it. You might as well have sign that says “It’s you and this is your punishment”. If I ask you to stop to pick up milk (wine) and you sigh and say “I guess I could” you are communicating some kind of offense at having been asked –passive aggressively. In other words instead of saying “I would love to but I am busy” you are throwing in some sour. No one really wants this kind of help. They’d rather shop themselves than drink curdled milk.
HACK NUMBER THREE: Share don’t strategize. If you share regularly with your partner you allow for intimacy and build trust. This becomes the foundation for all of those trickier communications, because your partner gets you, they know what hurts, and they actually love and support you. You have to make a decision to let this person be on your team. If you are strategizing rather than sharing you are making an opponent of your paramour and all of your communications will be laced with distrust and self protection. I mean your partner is not your therapist. They can’t treat your depression or take on your burden, but they can understand you, support you, and cheer you on. If you aren’t willing to share who you really are your words will be empty vessels at best.
HACK NUMBER FOUR: Ask for things. It’s a million times easier to say “I am a bit of a neat freak and it would mean so much to me if you would indulge and keep your toothbrush in the drawer” than “Please could you not leave your toothbrush on the counter” which judges them for being different and judgment almost always results in defensiveness, feeling attacked and compelled to counter attack. “Ya, well at least I’m not so rigid I have to alphabetize my garbage”. Most of us feel really good about helping, and very motivated to be supportive when we feel good about our help and not like we must compensate for a shortcoming.
HACK NUMBER FIVE: Express feelings not judgments. We have all heard that it’s better to say “I feel frustrated when you…” than “You always, you never” and so on. Because again, judgment. You don’t want to judge. It won’t help you. You don’t even mean it. It’s a trick of ego that tells you it will protect you from evil, which in this case is your love interest, but it doesn’t work. So “I feel’ is a good start. The problem I often see here, is that “I feel” is not accompanied by an emotion – sad, angry, lonely, confused, hurt – but rather a judgment in disguise. I feel utterly abandoned by you or I feel you’re an asshole is not a whole lot better than straight out accusation. One of my favourite tools is to go one step further and say “I feel hurt but I really want to feel safe and good and secure”. “I feel angry yet I know that you are so good to me and I don’t want this feeling”. This invites your person to support you in working it out AND gives direction to the communication toward good feeling outcomes. It overtly removes any attack sentiment from the expression of feeling, and allows everyone to get back to collaborating to meet each other’s needs.
HACK NUMBER SIX: That really works for me. That doesn’t work for me. Letting your partner know what works for you is tremendously valuable. It teaches them how to support you by creating warm fuzzy hamster feelings, which is the opposite of judgment. “It felt so nice” and “I really appreciated” are expressions we want to reach for often. That doesn’t work for me is a great way to express a boundary without judging, but save this one for after you’ve tried the positive spin and after you’ve asked for what you need.
HACK NUMBER SEVEN: Validate don’t fix. Man, this one can be so hard for us, precisely because we are all experts on how to solve other people’s problems, which is precisely because we are not living them. It’s not our process, which means we can see the variables but we aren’t confused by the feelings. Ay there’s the rub! When they are your feelings you need a way to work through them to arrive at your own solution, and until you do, that solution, or somebody else’s (even if it’s the best one and you’re gonna get there) are not going to help. When we share our distress, we are asking for love. Kindness, reassurance, someone to say “that must be hard” or “I get it” or “I wish I could make it better”. We don’t need someone to tell us we should would could, unless we specifically ask for it by saying “I need some advice”. And even when we explicitly ask for advice it is best given with no strings. Because hearing we should choose A, sometimes helps us get really clear that we want B. So give advice when it’s asked for but don’t be offended if it’s not taken. And if you’re not sure how best to support someone “How can I help” is a great clarifier. “Do you need me to listen or do you need advice?”
At the end of the long day, words are the vessel, the boat, and feelings are the cargo. Sometimes the cargo is dangerous, too heavy, and needs to be handled before it gets put on a boat. But if and when you’re going to ship your precious cargo, your feeling needing vulnerable self, pack it with love, remember why you are shipping it in the first place and whatever you do stay away from that flag with the skull and crossbones on it.
— Love Erin
P.S. 2021 I am bringing on the love. I’ll be featured in a podcast all about better loving, from healing your broken heart to intentional dating to creating a relationship that thrives, and I’ll be launching a sister site for all of you relationship and love enthusiasts, with all kinds of insights and offerings. Stay tuned!
P.P.S. One of the kindest things you can do for me is to share my writing. If you enjoyed today’s Monday Musing and know someone else who would please forward it to a friend.