He Said, She Said
To expand on the previous article regarding the marital relationship, lets look further at the role of communication in satisfactory relationships. When embarking upon discussion of those topics fraught with potential for conflict or misunderstanding, we might do well to ask ourselves: Is my goal to join with others, or to create separation in order to prove myself right and which will be achieved by my communication style? Another way to consider this is to determine if we are more invested in truly understanding how our partner feels, or in defending our own egos, thereby showing our partner he or she is wrong. In the latter mode, discussions can easily get derailed into attacking and counter-attacking, the original purpose of the communication is lost, feelings may be greatly hurt or the relationship irreparably damaged, and still no resolution has occurred.
The need to protect or defend is an inherent motivation to shield ourselves from any threat of emotional pain, which can be the feeling of being judged, criticized or put down.
The need to defend invites many of us to feel angry, as anger is much easier to tolerate and express than fear. Partners may act out the need to protect in several ways. One way is to adopt superficial compliance, denying his or her own feelings or needs out of fear of conflict or further judgment. A partner may become invested in contro, and attempt to win by trying to change the other partners mind or behavior through the use of guilt or fear. Indifference is a passive-aggressive response demonstrated by ignoring the conflict or becoming preoccupied with other endeavors in which the partner is in effect saying, I'm afraid to say how I really feel, but I refuse to allow you to hurt or control me. These protective behaviors can become self-perpetuating patterns that have the potential of escalating to dangerous levels or shutting one partner down totally, neither of which allows for understanding and sharing, the prerequisite for true intimacy in a relationship.
The intent to learn or understand involves a willingness to be vulnerable and open; to connect with and express our feelings directly rather than through the filter of perceived threats to our ego or emotional security. This is behavior that emanates from our higher self, those positive feelings of love, acceptance, confidence and wonder. It requires stepping out of the cloak of fear that we may instinctively adopt at the first hint of conflict. Understanding that we have the right to express our needs and wants can help us do so in a gentle, loving manner, which, with time, will invite our partner to respond in a like fashion. Genuinely, sincerely trying to understand our partner can be accomplished by using reflective listening techniques rephrasing what our partner has said, rather than refuting it. This conveys the intent to understand. The authors of the book Fighting for Your Marriage suggest that partners take turns having the floor expressing feelings while the other reflects until he/she achieves an understanding of what the speaker is actually saying. Partners can take turns actually holding an item than represents the floor. Eliminating the phrases You always or You never can help lower defensiveness in partners discussing touchy subjects. Simply beginning sentences with the phrase I feel or I would like can avoid the partners radar-scanning for the perceived attack that inevitably follows the word you.
Effective, loving communication is a process that improves with time and practice. Starting now means you can accomplish it sooner rather than later!
Belinda Crosier, Masters of Education and Licensed Professional Counselor at Edmond Family Counseling. She can be reached at 351-3554.