Feel like you and your partner have a lot of misunderstandings that lead to really hurt feelings or small misdeeds that somehow escalate into arguments blown out of proportion?
When it comes to having a successful and healthy relationship, communication is everything. Good communication skills can nip resentment and conflict in the bud, halting relationship problems and fights before they ever arise or at least stopping them before they get more serious than they need to be.
One of the most useful pieces of relationship advice I've ever gotten came from a conversation I had several months ago with Effy Blue, a wise relationship coach based in New York who's very good at getting couples and individuals to be more aware of the underlying emotions, beliefs, and values that shape their behavior in relationships. She shared with me a specific conversational tool that's changed the nature of all of my communication habits around hurt feelings and conflict—and not just with my romantic partner.
Identifying the stories.
Anytime you're feeling upset over something your partner has done or is doing, bring it up to them like this:
"I have a story in my head that..."
This tool is based on clinical psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg's philosophy of "nonviolent communication." Here's an example: "I have a story in my head that you're creating this new group of friends that you actively don't want me to be a part of." (A real fight I recently had with a close friend!)
Or here's one that Blue used while describing the practice to me: "Last night a partner of mine said to me, 'I have a story in my head that you're mad with me because I didn't pay attention to you at the party we were at,'" she said. "Actually it's not true, but they were operating from this place of I'm upset with them. I was actually just really concerned about some of the work that I had this week, but they sort of connected some random dots, and they decided I was upset with them."
What this phrasing does, Blue explained, is acknowledge that you've made up a story in your head. You actually have no idea why the person has done what they've done, but you have attached a meaning to it that's been causing you pain and heartache. This lets the other person hear how you're feeling and see things from your perspective without feeling like they're being accused; you've already acknowledged that this is just a story you've created in your head, one that you acknowledge may or may not be true. That gives them the opportunity to recognize how their actions, whatever the intent, have been perceived—without feeling threatened or attacked.
Compare that to if I had said to my friend: "You never invite me to anything! Why do you always leave me out of your plans?"
Even though that might accurately represent how I felt, that kind of conversation starter immediately puts the recipient on the defense. Worse yet, it presumes that the meaning I've applied to a set of events is the only meaning those events could possibly have. The reality, of course, is that there are many truths and many ways to interpret any set of actions or behaviors.
When I shared with my friend the narrative I'd crafted in my head about getting left out, supported by endless small moments that seemed to point to the story's truth, she told me her version of the events: A lot of those events were things that you aren't really interested in, so I honestly just didn't even think to invite you! It wasn't an intentional thing at all. I definitely didn't mean to leave you out on purpose or maliciously, and I can totally see why all those events together would make you feel that way. Honestly, I usually prefer one-on-one hangouts, which you and I do a lot, and I've always really loved those and thought we were in a good place. Now I know these group hangouts are really important to you, and I'll make sure you're feeling included and welcome in my social life.
What our different stories reveal about the ways we're disconnected.
When it comes to conflicts between two people who truly love each other and have each other's best interests at heart, most conflicts tend to stem from simply looking at the same scenario in two totally different ways. "By saying 'I have a story in my head that this is what's happening,' it allows me to go 'oh my God, I hear you,'" Blue explained. "'I can see how I'm disconnected from you right now.'"
A common time when we find ourselves unknowingly on very different pages than our partners is during moments of jealousy. For example, if your partner describes another woman as beautiful, you might instinctively compare yourself to that woman and feel hurt or threatened that your partner feels that way. You could say any number of things in response: "Why would you tell me that?" "You always find a way to make me feel insecure." "Are you into her?"
Or you could say this: "Ever since you mentioned that, I have this story in my head that you don't find me attractive."
What's the difference? Instead of accusing your partner of being an insensitive or unfaithful jerk, you're instead just highlighting the meaning you've laid onto his actions. This way it becomes very easy for your partner to understand how you're feeling, see how far removed it is from how they themselves are feeling, and respond in a positive, non-defensive way to put you both back on the same page: "Oh my gosh! That is not how I feel at all. There are lots of beautiful people out there, but you are the most beautiful person in the world to me, inside and out."
A better awareness.
Taking the time to pause, take a step back, and identify a potentially false narrative is an exercise in self-awareness. The "I have a story that" tool acknowledges your point of view and validates your feelings without giving up the opportunity to empathize with your partner. I use it often in all my relationships, especially when I feel like I'm caught up in a Big Feeling and know I might not be seeing things clearly.
In Blue's words, it's all about finding "ways of having that communication—honest and open communication—without triggering one another, without sort of making up stories or jumping to conclusions."
Give it a try the next time you're upset with someone, being sure to explain to the person the tool that you're using and why you're using it. You'll be surprised by how much easier it is to reconnect and put the hurt feelings to rest.
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Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
You can stay in the loop about her latest programs, gatherings, and other projects through her newsletter: kellygonsalves.com/newsletter