It’s 6 p.m. and your husband calls to tell you he's running late—there was a last-minute meeting at work and he just couldn’t sneak out. This is no surprise to you. He runs late almost every night. You say "OK," hang up the phone, and continue rounding up the kids and getting dinner on the table.
As you watch the clock, waiting for him to walk in the door, you get more and more frustrated. How many times have you asked him to be home when he says he will? You decide to let it go this time because it’s not worth another fight.
As he's driving home from work, he starts thinking about how mad you'll be when he gets home. He starts to feel guilty, but that’s not a good feeling, so he buries the guilt under reasons you're being ridiculous.
As soon as he walks through the door, the tension is so thick that you can barely walk through it. You both stew in silence for a bit. Then it starts.
He gets defensive, you withdraw, he pushes more, and then you start to push back. Cutting words are thrown back and forth until you both walk away feeling angry, unheard, and distant. You just can’t talk to him about anything anymore. He doesn’t listen. It’s useless.
It isn't really, though. With just a few adjustments to your communication style, you can breathe new life into your relationship. Here are the three most powerful changes you can make to improve your communication today.
1. Stop making assumptions.
It's easy to attach our own meanings or beliefs to the actions and words of our partner. Rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt, we assume that their anger, frustration, or annoyance is directed toward us. These assumptions breed defensiveness before a conversation even begins.
Try this instead:
Before reacting, detach any meaning from the situation. Then work to understand your partner’s action or words. For example, it probably doesn’t mean that your partner doesn’t care about you if he didn’t do the dishes. It may just mean he was tired or forgot. Once you are able to dissolve your assumptions, you can ask for clarification. “When you did/said this, did you mean…?” Then remain open to your spouse’s answer.
2. Be mindful of the way you begin hard conversations.
When you start a conversation with an attack or nagging, it immediately puts your partner on the defensive. Once one person is in defensive mode, it can be difficult to come to a common understanding or even have a calm conversation. Dr. John Gottman refers to this as a “Harsh Start-Up."
Try this instead:
Start tough conversations with positivity, appreciation, or a compliment. Only describe your own feelings. Don't point fingers. In other words, reframe a complaint into a need. Here’s an example of how to change your message so you are heard.
Harsh Start-Up: “You forgot to take out the trash again. You’re so lazy.”
Reframe: “I appreciate you working so hard these last couple of weeks, but I’m feeling overwhelmed with the trash in the garage. Can you make sure to take it out for me tomorrow?”
3. Stop perpetuating the negative communication cycle.
We create communication habits throughout our entire lives, which we bring into our relationships. One partner may want to withdraw or avoid conflict while the other wants to meet conflict head-on. The more one partner withdraws, the more the other pushes. Neither partner is respecting boundaries or wishes. These communication habits keep couples stuck in a harmful cycle, including a mix of withdrawal (silence), pursuit (anger/voice raised), and defensiveness (anger/fear/dismissiveness).
Try this instead:
Take notice of the communication cycle in your marriage. Do you withdraw when your spouse gets angry? Does your spouse get defensive or dismissive when you push? Once you are able to see the cycle, you can take steps to change it. For example, when you notice your partner getting defensive, take a step back and listen intently instead of pursuing or getting angry. Think of it like a game: Keep changing different parts of the cycle until you find the sweet spot.
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