How To Communicate Better in a Non-Fairytale Sort of Relationship
Hint, vulnerability is crucial
How, how, how…
Do you have the courage to communicate what you really want and need in your relationships?
If so, how? How do you communicate your needs?
The how makes all the difference. It can be either the glue or the repellant in the relationship. A how that’s calm, caring, and vulnerable has the best chances of being well received. [If you’re not in a highly toxic relationship that is.] A how that’s demanding, controlling, desperate, or manipulative has the tendency to increase the distance and decrease the trust within the relationship. This is even if you succeed in getting what you want.
A third — not uncommon — alternative is to omit the how, i.e., to say nothing and never express your needs directly and clearly. Because you shouldn’t need to say what you want, your friends, and especially your partner, should read you like a book [when you want it], right? The problem with this approach is that you’ll be continuously disappointed, and because of that resentments and ensuing problems will burgeon.
The truth is we’re all imperfect. No one’s perfectly fulfilled in all aspects.
It’s hard to understand each other. It’s hard to understand ourselves too, for that matter!
How to understand each other better is by communicating better. The only way to communicate well is with sincerity and vulnerability. That bolsters trust, respect, and harmony in the relationship; it’s the most worthwhile investment, is it not?
Easy to misunderstand, hard to understand
You may think [s]he should understand what you need. You may even have said it before. The thing is, your partner isn’t perfect. He can’t read your mind. And even if you’ve expressed it earlier, he might have “just forgotten it.” He may also have misinterpreted your signals and hints. He might be less intuitive/sensitive and have different needs; thus, it’s harder for him to understand yours. Aren’t we all guilty of [mis-] interpreting one another by failing to look beyond our own lenses? Besides that, some are less intuitive than others and need more direct communication.
Or he may not care at all and take you for granted, but how do you know? And how do you want to find out?
What if you become (like I have many times) passive-aggressive instead? Instead of speaking up about your frustration and hurt feelings, you indirectly hint about your anger and pain: by, for example, complaining about other things or by displaying a subtle hostility towards your significant other.
Or you lash out in more or less justified indignation. (I can, again, confess to this too.) The problem is, from an aroused state of anger, fear, and sadness nothing can be resolved. The idea is to learn to calm down first so we can express our needs and frustrations in an understandable way. Then we actually stand a real chance of the message being received.
Be kind and compassionate to yourself and your significant other. It’s a learning process; it’ll cost many mistakes and failures. Thus, patience, tolerance, and lenience are called for. The idea is to help each other grow together and not the opposite. And not to always [pretend to] be so perfect.
You have different characters and different strengths and weaknesses
Remember [s]he has other character strengths and weaknesses. By any luck, some will be complementary to yours. He has another life story and other life circumstances that have shaped him. (And, if I dare to say, he may have some other biological propensities too.) What if you, for instance, have partly different attachment style patterns? One of you may be leaning towards an anxious pattern (more clingy and needy) and one may be leaning towards an avoidant pattern (evading and distant). As the case is with me and my partner.
Can you overcome it?
Perhaps. But it takes individual work. It takes introspection and humility. By both parts!
Few, if any, of us are 100 % either-or. In other words, we’re rather a mix of attachment patterns. I’m secure, anxious, and avoidant to different levels [human beings are complex, ok!] but I know my weakness shifts towards the anxious style. It’s not my partner’s “fault”, and it’s not his job to adjust to my weaknesses and clingy needs. That makes for an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship. But he needn’t be harsh and judgmental towards my sometimes not-so-constructive behavior either: how he addresses it, makes all the difference. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s up to me to do the personal work or not. (The same goes for him.)
With introspective work — in my case, a combination of writing/journaling and mindfulness — I’m getting better at distinguishing valid needs I have from what’s rooted in insecurity. And at communicating those needs in a clear way rather than indirectly/insecurely (passive-aggressively).
It takes time though, these changes don’t happen over a fortnight. I still make mistakes. I still have moments of fallbacks and so does my (somewhat avoidant) partner. We need to have some forbearance with one another. And continuously communicate so that we can clear up the misunderstandings that inevitably keep popping up.
Can we say it without attacking?
And can we accept it without becoming defensive?
Can we communicate our needs without attacking our significant other and make them feel like they’re not enough? And can we learn to take criticism without taking it personally?
Love shouldn’t be a battlefield. But neither should it be a fairy tale with a heavenly happily ever after ending. Because isn’t it also a beginning? (I know no real-living person living the perfect fairytale, do you?)
“The single most important reason that kills marriages and almost all relationships is the biologically oriented inability to handle personal criticism without becoming defensive.”
How we word things, the tone of voice we speak with, and the intention we have for uttering our concerns and critiques matter. But also how we receive and interpret things. Both need to work on themselves consciously to improve their communication. One might initiate this work and work a bit harder than the other. If this person is you, try to be lenient, and guide—rather than force—your partner to be “as good as you.” This is hard!
A two-way effort is needed, but it may not be exactly 50–50 equal at all times. And that may be ok. 90–10 may not be ok. The devil is in the details; it depends on your specific circumstances. How much love, chemistry, respect, concurrence in values, and trust there’re between you may determine if it’s worth fighting for maintaining the relationship. The idea is, in a long-term perspective, to feel like you grow and become stronger — rather than the opposite — together. Demanding absolute equality might inhibit that growth.
Practice speaking slowly and steer clear of running to rapid conclusions. Critique their actions and not their person. Despite your efforts, they may anyway take it personally: so stop and address that, be clear about the difference. Be vigilant to recrudescent attack/defense communication, as it might be a habitual pattern and it takes time, effort, patience, and tolerance to change it. (If the will is there to make a change at all…)
Here’s an example, imagine your partner isn’t exactly a prolific dishwasher. How do you address it? Do you yell and berate him for his laziness? Do you call him a slothful person that never helps you? Do you — at the instant — do it for him (and later on passive-aggressively hint your frustration)? Or do you come up with a compromise together, while perhaps acknowledging that one of you is much more orderly and conscientious than the other? It might not be exactly what either of you want the most, but somewhere in-between, and with a tad bit of lenience for a few times of poor compliance?
Communicating effectively takes personal vulnerability. It’s easier to attack and defend. Attacking and defending is a way of avoiding being vulnerable. Be observant with this in both yourself and your partner. And try to address this with compassion. Be kind to yourself and your significant other to help — not force — one another to be more vulnerable. This can be with the practice of open, non-judgmental conversations while agreeing on the intention to try to understand one another better.
Don’t escape into distractions
It seems we’re so willing to do anything we can to distract ourselves from any miseries in our intimate relationships somehow believing that problems will vanish just by pretending they don’t exist. This is one of my partner’s worst weaknesses. He keeps repeating this mantra “hay que evitar los problemas” (we need to avoid problems), which I ferociously disagree with! But I try to remind him as kindly as I can that that’s not a good approach. Avoiding means suppressing, not overcoming.
It’s better for both of us to address and resolve our conflicts. What I need to practice though is to sometimes give him some time, to not force conflict resolution at the exact instant I feel like I need it (and trust that we will overcome it). Again, we come back to compromising.
Say what you need, don’t demand it
What’s harder than expressing our needs?
Many of us—perhaps due to feelings of low self-worth, as the case has been for me—have not learned how to effectively communicate what we need or what’s bothering us. We either withhold our needs (only to risk becoming consumed by self-pity, potentially leading to passive-aggressiveness) or demand things to be as we please: two poles of manifested insecurity.
By demanding and trying to control (read: manipulate) our significant other (and other loved ones) to do what we think we want and need we build a fragile sense of “security”. A common way of doing this is by guilt-tripping. It may work, but it’s toxic medicine for the relationship as it’s so hard to address and the victim may become resentful over the long haul.
Thus the idea is to neither be silent nor demanding, but to find the middle ground — between silent avoidance and nagging clamor — where we can directly address what we want and need. This takes vulnerability and trust, something to build together. (Oh, this is most scary: to be vulnerable means letting go of control.)
Or is the grass greener on the other side?
Perhaps it is. A toxic relationship in which there’s much manipulation going on may not be possible or worthwhile to save.
But whatever you do, please, don’t compare your partner with others. People are never as perfect as they seem.
To be honest, I loathe when men compare their partner, wife, or girlfriend with me. It’s unfair and it’s unreal. Even if you’re a quite real person the glimpses people get of you can never portray the full picture. And I know, had they only been with me longer, they’d be bothered with numerous things about me (my somewhat volatile temperament to name just one), and start dreaming about someone else. No thanks!
If you perpetually find yourself desiring more and better, maybe what you need to do is to look within and the hole you’re trying to fill externally?
If uncertain about your current relationship[s], evaluate how you feel in it, is it making you grow or shrink? In what direction do you want to grow, is the relationship helping you? If not, can you conjure up something you can do to become more aligned with one another? What can you do to understand your partner better and improve your communication?
Is the source that motivates you fear or love?
Take your time.
And thanks for your time.
Originally published on Medium