By: Daniel Alberto Perez, MA, MSW LICSW
Do you and your significant other argue about small, little things? Do you feel like talking with your partner gets more difficult as the days, months, and years go by? Do you ever feel like your partner is the worst communicator in the world?
First of all, if you answered yes to any or all of the questions above, you’re not alone in having those thoughts and feelings. There is hope.
Bringing hope into real life means working on communication skills. While the majority of us believe talking back and forth is “good” communication, it is easy to forget that only 7% of communication is verbal—what is actually said. The other 93% of communication is nonverbal—our tone of voice, volume, gestures, proximity or distancing, posture and overall body language. Therefore, communication problems often arise from the mismatch of our words and our non-spoken language—also known as poor communication. For example, saying “I’m listening” to your significant other while looking at an electronic device actually sends the opposite message.
Communication is vastly improved when we are physically, mentally, and emotionally present. This means investing the time to be in the same place (or on a video chat for long-distance folks). It means choosing to set aside distractions like smartphones and other screens. And it can mean taking some time alone first, to breathe and release all the stress of the day to then be able to focus on your partner. In everyday life, it may also mean just taking a couple extra seconds to look your partner in the eye and say “I love you” as you hand off a baby ready for a diaper change so you can go clean up the kitchen after dinner. When we neglect to be fully present, say we’re physically present but emotionally absent (or vice versa), we create room for disconnection and miscommunication to happen.
Another mismatch that frequently arises is when the things being verbally said don’t communicate a full emotional truth. When my wife first moved in with roommates, they had discussions about all sorts of household responsibilities to make sure everyone helped make things run smoothly. Yet she found that when someone didn’t clean up their dishes, it would not simply make her annoyed or grossed out, but deeply and personally offended. By the time we were living together, she could articulate that dirty dishes left behind made her feel unvalued. Identifying this sort of dissonance and processing it in a productive manner requires patience, good communication and, sometimes, a professional therapist or counselor.
What’s more, healthy communication does not always involve resolving the conflict, at least not immediately. Instead, healthy communication prioritizes connection and mutual understanding. Unfortunately, many of us were taught, whether implicitly and/or explicitly, to be afraid of conflict and to associate it with negative feelings and disastrous results. However, good communicators know that conflict is an opportunity for growth. They also see it as a chance to understand each other better. In fact, a couple who practices healthy communication is often able to de-escalate conflict and “park” a point of contention for a period of time. For example, a partner might say, “honey, I know we’re both upset at each other right now, but it’s getting late and both of us need to sleep. I would love to hear more about what you have to say. Can we talk about this tomorrow after dinner? I want to give you the attention you deserve.” And the other person might respond affirmatively and say “thank you for wanting to continue talking about this but I agree with you that it’s time for us to go to bed. I love you and I look forward to our conversation.” It sounds a little cheesy perhaps, but this sort of conversation identifies a future space and time when both parties can better practice being physically, mentally and emotionally present, while also meeting their real life needs for rest.
Finally, communication problems cannot be resolved by employing the same tactics that create those problems. Hollywood often creates a narrative that the same thing over and over is boring, but we as humans actually do well with patterns and habits that help us stay centered. Habits can change and grow too, but finding ways to constantly build your strong foundation makes it easier to navigate the really hard stuff. So here are some encouraging ways that foster connection and understanding and improve communication with your significant other:
Create lighthearted connections. Maybe give each other absurd pet names or make a love song rap together. Things that can be brought up in the midst of tough times to remind you that even when things are hard, there’s still laughter and love.
Create small moments of real connection. Share a High, a Low and something you’re grateful for each evening. Break out of the logistics--what’s happening tomorrow? Who has to pick up the kids? What did you do at work today? The point is to connect you to each other’s experiences through life’s ups and downs. For example, “my high today was getting to talk with my friends and then have dinner with you. My low was when my colleague was unnecessarily rude and made me feel incompetent. I’m grateful for our warm house!”
Take time to touch each other (as desired by both partners). Since communication is mostly nonverbal, find ways to regularly communicate how you care for each other. Maybe create a secret handhold that means “I want you” or offer back massages.