Gentle Requests – On Communication in Relationships

Communication in Relationships: Gentle Requests

By the time we are grown up almost all of us have figured out how to get what we want in life and how to get things that we don’t like to stop. We usually learn these skills when we are very young, starting with our first empowering word: “NO.”

As an adult we find out partner and then we use these same skills to continue the process of getting what we want and stopping what we don’t want.

But for many couples the habits and skills we bring into a relationship often create difficulty with our beloved…

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What Went Wrong?

I often work with couples who impress upon me how they just don’t know what went wrong in their relationship.  They started out so loving and happy and then they woke up somewhere down the road, years later and they just don’t have that happy feeling anymore and they don’t know why.

They tell me it’s because they may have fallen out of love for their partner.  They also tell me they are not sure if they can get “it” back.

The “it” is the feeling couples experienced when they first got together, that loving, wonderful state that makes us believe we will always feel fantastic with our person.

We sign up for the relationship and believe that we will always feel this way with the person we have chosen.  Only we don’t.  We start to notice things about them that we don’t’ like.  They start to nag us or complain, or ignore us and we don’t like that.

These are the normal patterns that set in when a couple moves beyond the first phase of bliss.  It’s what we do about these differences that determine how the relationship survives.

If we have some experience in relationships we might have some communication skills to speak about our feelings with our beloved.  If we are fairly young in the relationship world we might just be beginning to discover ourselves and what we want and need for happiness, so we may not know how to communicate those things yet.

Each person brings their habits from their singlehood; how they took care of themselves, how they communicated with others, how they feed themselves and clean up after themselves.  These are habits people bring into a relationship that were most likely formed in their childhood.  Each person in a couple brings their own set of comforts around these issues.

When we are in a blissful state of loving our partner, no one thinks about the socks left on the floor.  Such a little detail would be meaningless and laughable in this state of love.  But just wait a few years after one of the partners has been picking up dirty socks for the other and is so tired of doing it they will scream if they have to pick up one more dirty sock from the floor.

Then the couple comes in to counseling and tells me they just fell out of love with their mate and they don’t know why.

It is my belief as a Marriage and Family Counselor that couples have more  to become good at a lot of jobs in order to have a successful relationship.

In no particular order except that they are all equally important, each person in the relationship has to become aware of their own feelings and reactions to their mate.  Each person must also become an expert in their partner’s feelings and learn how to attend them.  Both people in a relationship have to be conscious of how they communicate with their beloved.

If you were talking to a hurt child you would be kind, caring and compassionate.  Regardless of how mad you may get at your mate, you can not throw up your anger on them.  Unless you are truly with a terrible person, it’s almost always the case that what ever the perceived hurt you may have felt, it was not done intentionally.

You picked a good person.  You picked the right person.  Your job is to learn how to be the best mate you can be and to take care of the person you are sharing your life with as your partner will do for you.  Now that is a great relationship, where no one gets blindsided.

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When Your Partner is Your Enemy

By the time couples come in to see me for couples counseling it’s a good bet they have tried everything they know to feel better in the relationship. If a couple comes in while both still like each other and both want to make the partnership work the outcome can be terrific.
But if each person has been holding on to anger at the other person for a good amount of time and finding fault with everything their partner does, then mending the damage becomes an entirely different and more difficult endeavor.
Sometimes when a couple has been at war with each other for a long time they don’t see the good in the other person anymore. They see their mate as the evil one who does things intentionally to hurt them. They might even feel harmed by their mate. So they might end up making their partner, husband, wife, the person they believed would grow old with, into something they never thought they would… they make them their ENEMY.
I bet if you could go back in time with any couple who stays at war with their mate and see them early on in their relationship as a loving couple, and if you asked them then if they thought they would be enemies they would probably tell you, you are crazy to even think they could possibly hate their beloved. It would be unthinkable to them. No one sets out to dislike the one they love.
And if there is any hope for a recommitment of sorts between them, that’s where I have to help them look, back to the start of the relationship when they believed in their partnership. The couple has to find some kernel of past happiness to hold on to, in order to be able to rekindle something that could bring them closer.
By the time a couple gets caught up in the cycle of blaming each other, it’s likely they have spent a lot of time wishing they could be close and feel loved by their partner. When couples end up blaming their partner for what is wrong in the relationship they have already spent a long time trying to change their mate so they can feel better; feel more love, feel close to them again. They have tried everything they know and are probably exhausted and lonely. Unfortunately, I believe that a working relationship must have aware participants who can take responsibility for how they treat their partner.
No one gets a pass to be mean to their beloved. I don’t care what your partner has done. When we retaliate on our mate we are no better than two five-year-olds battling it out on a schoolyard. This is no-win behavior that makes us mad at our mate and it pushes us toward demonizing them and hating them for how we feel…unloved.
People who bicker and argue may be good at fighting with each other. They may even think that people need to have battling skills to be in a successful relationship. Maybe they saw their parents fight like this. Maybe they learned how to raise their voice out of frustration. What ever the reason let me be clear on this point too. As a Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in helping couples I know that fighting does not belong in a healthy relationship. Fighting causes harm and bad feelings.
Disagreements are a natural part of life though. People get their feelings hurt. That’s normal. What is helpful is to learn the skills to tell your partner when you are upset. Both people should also have some skills at saying “I’m sorry.” This is part of resolving difficulties, and these are some of the skills you can learn in counseling. Healthy couples don’t stuff their feelings either, they express them, only they don’t slam or blame their partner in the process.
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When Couples Stop Communicating

Some people stay in their relationships even when they feel distant from their partner.  I’ve seen couples spend decades with a person they don’t really know, or think about.  They just find a way to exist inside the relationship.  It’s like they
live alone, even though they are a couple.

People who find themselves in this type of situation might wonder if their life is happy enough.  They might quietly ask themselves if they could have a better life by making some changes. Maybe they resign themselves and just accept their circumstances.

I’ve worked with couples who have been together for decades.  They tell me they don’t want to end their marriage.  They tell me they love the other person. What I often see are two people who believe they know each other so well they don’t even see the other person anymore.  They’ve become people who can answer the other’s sentences. They already know what the other person is going to say even before they say it.  The curiosity and wonder about their mate has vanished.

They come to counseling to get “better”.  They want what they used to have; closeness, laughter, possibilities.  They want me to help them find it again, as if it’s just hidden somewhere and I can use my therapeutic x-ray vision to spot it.  I wish it was this easy.  I wish I could just help couples feel good about being in their relationship again. 

But I know it’s not that simple.  I do have good vision, and I can probably help couples see what happened to their relationship and why they feel the way they do.  This is often helpful, but it’s just the beginning.  The real work comes
when each person wants to have a better relationship and isn’t expecting the other to make it better for them.

If one or both people in the relationship are waiting for the other to change, that relationship is going to stay the same. It isn’t up to one person to make it different for the other. A relationship improves when both people look at themselves.
When each person starts to see how they talk, and react to the other person, then there’s a good chance for change. 

In counseling each person begins to understand what he or she is about.  They learn what they have wanted and needed from the other person and they acquire the skills to ask for it.  If a couple wants to save a relationship it’s likely both want to see their partner happy. If this is your situation why not try counseling, dig in and fight for what you really want; love, closeness, understanding, kindness, support.

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When Couples Argue

Sometimes when I see couples they are a little embarrassed to tell me how they communicate with each other, especially when they are in a heated argument.  They often blame the other for making them feel so terrible. I usually hear something like, “He always does this,” “She never stops doing that.”

Both people are locked in their pattern of responding to the other.  These patterns cement over time.  When people get to the end of their rope they say the most emphatic thing to the other person so they can to be heard.  Sometimes it’s really harsh.  And when a couple gets to this point they are locked in dueling tirades.

They might sound something like this.  “You blank, blank, blank.  You make me so blank mad.  I hate you.  I wish you were dead.  I wish we never met.”  Both people are yelling curse words at each other and it’s as explosive as it can get.

Maybe one person does the yelling one time and the other person yells another time.  Maybe this is your pattern.  What ever your particulars, I know that you will feel terrible after it’s over. 

No one likes yelling. No one feels terrific about him or herself after yelling at their mate.  You might feel a little bit of release from the pent up anger, but I have never met a person who actually likes this behavior.  Most people I meet are embarrassed about it.  Why embarrassment?  Because everyone who yells knows deep down inside that it’s wrong. 

No one wins when someone yells.  Every one feels terrible.

I worked with a couple recently.  They were civil to each other inside the therapy room. But I got a glimpse of the kind of arguing they do when they are at the end of their rope.  It’s as bad as it gets, each hurling the worst cursing insults at the other.  They came to therapy a few times.  But I never got the sense that they were really in it. 

Sometimes people think that one, or two sessions will change things.  If they don’t feel better they assume that the therapy isn’t working and then they might rationalize, “We can live with the situation here at home.  It’s bad, but we can live with it.”

And they can.  Each couple knows what they can handle.  I just know that couples who learn about themselves and understand that they are fighting because their needs have not been met, are a lot happier in their relationships.  I know that when couples allow the therapy to work they feel better. They figure out different ways to communicate and they eliminate the harmful dueling.

Some couples are looking for the magic answer.  The answer doesn’t come from me, I know that the answers live inside each person in the relationship; all that’s needed is a guide.

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Research shows it’s not the fight that hurts the relationship…It’s how you fight that determines lasting effects

According to The New York Times Magazine, April 18, 2010, in an article that ponders the question, “Is marriage good for your health?” surprising studies show that people who fight are not in danger.  The research shows it’s not the fight that determines whether the marriage is good for you and your partner. It doesn’t matter how difficult the argument or how angry the fight, what matters is whether the people fighting stay connected.  That’s right, you have to tell you partner right in the middle of a fight that you still love them.  You have to find a way to grab their hand or call him or her a pet name, and you have to do this right in the middle of the argument or fight.

If you can do this you will have a happy heart and not suffer from stress.  When we argue without connection to our partner we put stress on our hearts and other parts of our body.  We get all keyed up and mad, sometimes we even get hateful.  The key, according to research, is to find a way to make a connection with the person we are fighting with, during the argument. 

Usually couples will have it out with each other and then they’ll have to wait until all the energy inside them dies down so they can talk to each other again, talk about what happened and start some sort of repair process to reconnect.  Research shows  us that if you can find a way to get out of the anger for just a second and make an overture to your partner, a small gesture or a couple of loving words are all that’s needed, you will keep yourself from getting into that mad zone that takes so long to come back from.

Going there, the mad place, and staying there, is one of the most harmful things you can do to your body.  Your body is now dealing with enormous amounts of energy.  It’s all stored up inside each of you and it has to go somewhere.  Maybe some of it get’s released through loud words said to each other, but chances are if you are yelling at the other person you are pretty amped up and those feelings are going to take some time to dissipate.  It’s this period that has the most negative impact on your body; elevated stress hormones, elevated risk of diabetes, elevated risk of heart disease, immune system weakens, increased risk of depression, nasty stuff to keep inside yourself.

Why not think of this now, before the next blow up. Talk with your partner, spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend and discuss the damage you each are doing to yourselves when you get in prolonged arguments.  Gain an understanding of the toxicity that fighting without connecting can produce.

Maybe you can come up with your special way of connecting before the argument begins.  Why not create a safe word or a funny phrase, a physical gesture or make a silly face.  Anything will work, as long as it brings the two of you close.  The idea isn’t to end the argument or fight.  The technique is designed to give the two of you a place away from the war zone.  It doesn’t even have to last a long time.  It just has to last a moment.  If you can do this the research says you will be served by your relationship, instead of it feeling like a weight.

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