To sustain an intimate relationship, we must be able to communicate with one another.
Our communication needs to go beyond the events of the day to truthful, heartfelt conversation that explores feelings and issues within and affecting the relationship. Much of what passes for communication in daily life is far from honest or heartfelt.
An exchange of “How are you?” “I’m fine” is more of a social nicety than an effort to elicit true feelings.
Unfortunately, that glib communication style may carry over into our close personal relationships. When a partner asks, “What’s wrong?” the other partner’s first impulse may be to answer, “Nothing.” If indeed nothing is wrong, that answer is fine; but if the answer is given as a way of escaping deeper discussion of an issue, the relationship may be at risk.
If partners rarely talk honestly with each other except in a crisis, then any deep conversation may be seen as threatening or critical. But if a couple establishes a regular practice of exploring their feelings and ideas about important subjects, they will not only have a deeper connection, but they will also have a greater capacity to handle complex issues as they arise.
But how do we get to a place in our relationship where we can speak honestly, self-disclose and give and receive constructive criticism without being hurtful or wounded or defensive? It takes practice – ideally from the earliest days of the relationship. Honest communication calls for some self-assessment on the part of both partners. Each one must understand his or her own sensitivities, limitations and fears about the truth.
What subjects are hurtful or off limits – and why? We each have sensitivities; appearance, education, family, faith, economic status or politics are some of the most common. Even a well-intended comment on one of those subjects can elicit a defensive reaction and interfere with honest communication.
In some cases, secrets – and the effort to keep them – become landmines that are threatening to the individuals and the relationship. If the partners are dealing with deeply-held secrets, personal counseling may be a logical step toward better communication. One of the most important skills in honest communication is listening.
If the partners interrupt one another or are too tired, distracted or upset to focus on the conversation, there can be little empathy or truthful two-way communication. It may help to establish a pattern of talking at a certain time – for example, after dinner over a cup of tea or glass of wine, in the hour before bed or during an afternoon walk.
The partners must also examine their motivations. Is the conversation about “winning” an argument or is it about discovering greater closeness in the relationship? If one partner wants to hurt, prove something, judge, seek revenge or make him- or herself look good, that’s not communication, it’s grandstanding.
Healthy communication does not have to end in agreement. One of the benefits of regular conversation is the discovery that it’s okay, and even stimulating, to disagree. When we are individuals with opinions and boundaries, healthy opposition is entirely appropriate and better for the relationship than rote agreement with everything the other person says.
But open-mindedness is essential. The partners must be willing to listen – and hear – opposing views. One of the best tools for achieving empathy is to imagine that we are the other person and see the topic from their point of view.
Couples sometimes fall into a pattern of only really talking to each other about difficult subjects or problems – when there’s a crisis. Make an effort to bring some “dream time” into your close communication, sharing your individual ideas about the present and future. “I’ve always wanted to….” is a good opener and can lead to exciting discoveries.
True communication is a two-way commitment, with each partner accepting responsibility and risk. Relationship counseling can be extremely helpful as couples work to achieve safety, comfort, growth and nurturing within their individual and shared truth.
Couple not talking image available from Shutterstock.