Communication, communication, communication. It sometimes seems as if we can’t open a magazine or watch a Youtube video of a couples’ expert talking without that article or expert banging home the point that most couple problems are communications problems.
There’s a reason for this. Many couples do find themselves in a communications rut. You may find yourself in that rut yourself, whether the “couple” at hand is you and your spouse/partner, you and a parent, or – come on, admit it! – you and your kid. (Yes. A communications rut with a kid happens when you ask the kid how school was today, and the kid grunts, “S’Okay.” And that’s the end of the conversation.)
The problem with most of these articles is that they’re half-good about defining the communications problem, and not terribly practical about defining the communications solution. They are half-good in that they identify that pairs of people often talk past each other, get lost in their own heads when the other person is talking, get activated by things that are being said and stop listening altogether, or just plain get distracted and lose interest. They’re half-bad in that they almost never talk about the flip side of communications problems: what happens when the two people in the couple are communicating just fine, but lose their minds when they come to understand what the other partner is saying!
More on that half-bad thing in another blog. For now, let’s talk about three things that all couples to can do to be better understood, and to better understand their partner. The best part is, you don’t need thirty sessions with a pricy psychotherapist to learn how to do them. You can start immediately.
First, what’s at the root of most coupling pile-ups? The great New York-and-New-Mexico-based therapist and thinker Harville Haddix believes that the issue lies in who we choose to be with for our lives, and why we choose that person. He suggests that couples pick their partners not because of love, looks, wealth, or family, but because they remind us in some unconscious way of those who raised us. That is, we pick our partners in the image of those who raised us up. He calls this choosing an “Imago match” – Imago for image. This kind of partner-picking is good, in that it helps us figure out our kid-hood upsets and traumas. Where it’s bad is that it can get us to act like children all over again. As Haddix puts it, “The trauma of childhood becomes the drama of adulthood.”
Here’s what you don’t have to do: Spend years on the couch working through those traumas of childhood. Here’s what you ought to do: start talking with your partner in a way that can, as a matter of course and of life, both get you heard and be heard by your wife, husband, boyfriend, or girlfriend.
This is what Haddix suggests, and I think he’s dead on target:
- First step: Mirror. That is, don’t judge what your partner is saying, and don’t react it to it from your gut. If your husband is saying to you, “I think you’re spending too much money on stupid-ass stuff,” then mirroring would mean you’ll say back, in a calm tone, “You think I’m spending too much money on stupid-ass stuff.” Don’t react, don’t be withering, don’t be defensive. What you’re doing here is making it clear that you hear what your partner is saying.
- Second step: Validate. Let’s face it. Our partners aren’t usually crazy. We don’t usually marry or be with truly crazy people. They may see things differently from the way that we do, but they’re not nuts. Therefore, a statement they make deserves a certain degree of validation, even if we don’t agree with it. We can say, when the partner says, “I think you’re spending too much money on stupid-ass stuff,” something like, “I can see how you feel that way. When I bought XYZ, it must have seemed stupid-ass to you.” Get it?
- Third step: Empathize. Understanding doesn’t just happen in your head. It happens in your heart, too. If we can tell our partners, and get them to believe, that we can truly imagine the way that they must be feeling, they will feel understand as never before. The funny thing is, we’ll feel better, too.
There you go. Three easy steps toward making partner talk valuable, helpful, and productive. Try them out in your next serious couple convo and you’ll see how well they can work for you.