The Least Sexy Article You’ll Ever Read On Improving Your Relationships
In over 25 years as a couples therapist in New York City, I have observed that HOW couples communicate determines whether they can resolve the inevitable differences that arise in committed relationships. Any problem — sexual, social, financial, parental — can be worked out only if couples communicate in a caring and respectful manner. And no problem can be resolved if they don’t.
While this article will be much less exciting than The Five Languages of Love or Getting the Love You Want, it will lay out three bread-and-butter rules necessary for a successful relationship. To be clear, these rules will not be sufficient for a satisfying relationship but they will, at least, give it a fighting chance.
I have never treated a couple who could make their relationship work while continually violating these rules — and this is true for all couples irrespective of their socioeconomic status, ethnicity, cultural background or sexual orientation.
RULE #1. EXPRESS GRIEVANCES WITHIN 24 HOURS
Grievances need to be brought up in a timely manner in order to facilitate their resolution. Admittedly, it is tempting to tell your partner all the things that have been bugging the hell out of you. However, no one responds well when complaints become laundry lists rooted in the past. So, you have 24 hours to bring up a grievance or you lose the right to ever mention it again. Forever! Period! Couples routinely balk at this rule, protesting that since it’s a pattern of behavior why shouldn’t one be able to bring up the past. Well, if it’s a pattern there will be plenty of opportunities to bring up your partner’s crappy behavior within 24 hours after it occurs. Holding things in, not being introspective or assertive enough to bring them up sooner rather than later, eventually leads to their passive-aggressive or explosive expression, making problems more difficult to address.
Why Aren’t Grievances Brought Up in a Timely Manner?
Fear is usually the reason why people harbor grievances: fear that a partner may become angry or defensive; fear that if ignored it may ignite your anger and cause you to act badly; or fear of making matters worse if you don’t know how to address something constructively. It is important to figure out why you are not bringing up things in a timely manner. It may be that a certain behavior is triggering issues that have nothing to do with the present situation. Getting a handle on the deeper cause of your resentments will help you communicate better with your partner.
RULE #2: EXPRESS YOUR NEEDS WITHOUT BLAMING
You cannot treat your partner as an annoying, displeasing object and expect a warm and fuzzy response. When you attack or blame, your partner will become aggressive, defensive or withdrawing. However, when you speak from the “I” and not the “You,” your partner may be more open to caring about your needs and feelings.
How to Express Your Needs
Of the three rules, this is the one that couples have the most difficulty with. A partner’s anger often finds its expression in blaming the other. The clearest indication of a blaming statement is one that usually begins with the word “you,” as in “You never listen to me” or “You’re never there when I need you.” Needs should be expressed as follows:
Description of the behavior (or non-behavior) that makes you unhappy. The behavior must be as specific and observable as possible in order to give your partner the best opportunity to respond. While the desire to feel more loved is part of our DNA, it is too broad an expectation to serve as the basis for behavioral change. Example: When you come home from work and don’t interact with me or share anything that went on during your day…
How the behavior made you feel. In order to effect behavioral change, your partner needs to fully understand the impact of his or her behavior. Example: When you come home from work and don’t interact with me or share anything that went on during your day, it makes me feel sad, less involved in your life…
The Specific Behavioral Change You Expect. To encourage your partner to be responsive to your needs, you must be as specific as possible about your expectations. Partners do better when the expectations are clearly expressed even if they can’t be totally met (as is usually the case). Example: When you come home from work and don’t interact with me or share anything that went on during your day, it makes me feel sad, less involved in your life, so I would like us to spend some one-on-one time together before going about our separate tasks.
In my work with couples, a common compromise on this very common issue involves one partner coming home, decompressing for 15 or 30 minutes, often without interaction, after which the couple reconnects and chats about the day or anything else on their minds. It’s important to keep in mind that you cannot convince someone to feel a certain way towards you. Legislating emotions just doesn’t work. However, while emotions are out of your immediate control, you have total power over how you communicate them to your partner.
Tips on How to Address Your Partner’s Behavior
In addressing dissatisfaction, avoid words like always, never, should, have to, or must. Do not psychoanalyze what childhood or other historical factors may have led your partner to act in a certain way. Do not bring something up if you are feeling hot under the collar; wait until you feel less compelled to confront your partner. Do not bring up anything first thing in the morning or before sleep or after alcohol (or any other substance) has been consumed. Do not raise emotionally charged issues by text, email or phone or in the presence of a third party.
RULE #3. KEEP BOTH FEET IN THE RELATIONSHIP RING
While it is natural from time to time to feel that a relationship is not working, comments that are dismissive of the relationship should not be made by either partner. Staying in the ring and fighting fairly means resisting the temptation to make statements like: I’m sick of this relationship; we’re just not right for each other; maybe we should spend some time apart; if you can’t change, I’m outta here; or I’ve had enough of you. These kinds of statements are like atomic bombs, with half-lives incredibly long. Never underestimate their destructive potential!
Couples can discuss and resolve problems only when both parties feel secure in their commitment to each other. If the relationship is continually called into question, problems between partners can never be effectively addressed.
Why Is It So Hard To Refrain from Making Dismissive Statements?
If you understand why you are attacking the stability of the relationship, it will be easier to control your impulses. The reasons behind dismissive comments often involve:
Fear that a partner isn’t really committed to you. When a partner fears rejection, there is a tendency to try to beat the other to the punch. The problem, of course, is that this tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Difficulty expressing yourself. Negative feelings are often suppressed when the skills to express them constructively have not been fully developed. These feelings get bottled up and the pressure inevitably leads to damaging comments about the relationship’s viability.
Greater verbal ability of a partner. Rarely are two partners equal in verbal ability. Out of fear of being overwhelmed by the other, the one with the lesser ability often shies away from discussing negative feelings.
Desire to leave the relationship. Let’s face it, not all relationships work out. At times, one partner may be in denial about the fragility of the relationship while the other accepts the fact that it is not working. Talking about this may prove difficult for the partner who wants to break up. One may feel that the other is a good person and does not deserve to be hurt, or is simply afraid of what the other’s reaction might be. Dismissive comments may then be made with the unconscious desire to provoke the complacent partner into breaking up, thereby shifting responsibility for this decision.
How to Handle Your Doubts about the Relationship
It is natural to be concerned about whether you are with the right person. You may need to explore all your thoughts, feelings, and doubts about the relationship — just not with your partner! Speaking to someone else, like a counselor, can be especially helpful. Remember, what goes on in your head does not have the ability to hurt anyone; only what you say or do can accomplish that. Nothing good can come out of a conversation where you discuss with your partner whether he or she is right for you. This type of interaction usually results in making the other feel angry, humiliated or defensive, and may even lead to withdrawal from the relationship.
Let me leave you with one, hopefully not too obvious, prescription: Honesty is not the best policy in relationships; communicating in a caring and respectful way is. Only when this standard is met, may you be honest.
(For a related article, see: https://medium.com/the-shadow/attraction-brings-you-together-compromise-keeps-you-together-91d17054916a