I think we need some help with communicating. Every time we try to talk, it ends up in a big fight — not a physical fight, just a verbal one, but we both get beaten up pretty badly. My husband complains that I don’t listen, but this frustrates me because I do listen and try to see things from his perspective. He is the one who doesn’t listen to me! We end up fighting about the same things over and over and nothing ever gets resolved. The problem is getting worse. I don’t want to separate, but I can’t take much more of the fighting. Would counselling help us, or is it too late? Is there anything we can do?
The possibility of changing communication patterns between you and your partner depends on your willingness to make changes.
Patterns of communication in your relationship have been constructed by both of you and it will take both of you to build a more productive and less damaging way of resolving points of contention. Counselling is a beneficial aid for changing problem communication habits, which can sometimes be quite persistent. If you choose to attend counselling, find a counsellor who you both feel comfortable with.
Conflict can be imagined as a small fire burning on the ground between two people standing on either side of it.
Each person holds in one hand a bucket of water and in the other, a can of gas. Every word spoken or action taken is a choice to add water and diminish the flames or gas to fuel them further.
As tempting as it may be, your partner throwing gas on the fire does not give you permission to do the same. Good conflict resolution is not necessarily about putting the fire out, but using its energy for productive purposes. Good conflict resolution always means not turning it into a raging blaze.
Whether you have counselling support or not, there are a few basic guidelines for good communication that you could both start using right away.
Listen well. Good listening means that you are able to hear and understand your partner’s perspective. This requires that you not argue with them in your head or formulate your rebuttal while they are speaking. Check with your partner to make sure you have understood the problem correctly. Understanding your partner doesn’t mean you have to agree with them.
Speak clearly. There are many different ways to say the same thing and the choices you make about what to say and how to say it will have an impact on how well your partner is able to hear you. Pay attention to verbal and non-verbal communication; we say a lot with our body language, facial expressions, and quality of voice.
Avoid blame and criticism. Messages laden with blame and criticism are not usually well received and likely to elicit a defensive response.
Stay on topic. Talk about only one issue at a time. It’s hard enough to resolve one issue and impossible to resolve 10. Sticking to the topic even when other issues are referred to will increase your chances of resolution.
Plan time to talk. Find a time when you will be free from distractions and interruptions. It is also important to plan a time to end the talk. Marathon discussions on hot topics are exhausting and people become too tired to be effective communicators. It is better to plan for several shorter conversations. You will both be in better shape to manage your emotions and your ability to communicate effectively if you stop before you lose your cool.
Take responsibility for yourself. You must be well in control of your emotions, behaviour, and contributions to the discussion. Take a break to calm yourself if you are getting worked up and might lose control of your mouth. If you do take a break, don’t leave your partner hanging. Let them know when you will be ready to resume the conversation. If you initiate the break, it is your responsibility to resume the discussion. If your partner needs a break, let them take one.
Slow it down. Most problems are not so urgent that they must be solved right this minute. Urgency can fuel the conflict so take a breath and slow down.
Share the time. An effective conversation is like a good volley in a game of tennis. The ball goes back and forth and spends about the same amount of time on each side of the net. One person doing all the talking is like trying to play tennis when the ball never crosses the net.
Know when to bite your tongue. We all know what words will push our partner’s buttons. Don’t knowingly provoke each other. Also, avoid sarcasm and name-calling.
Don’t threaten to end the relationship during an argument. Don’t say this unless you mean it. When we are angry, we say angry things, which sometimes damage the relationship. In the heat of the moment, likely you don’t really intend to leave, but are rather expressing frustration. It is better to say, “I am getting too frustrated and I need to take a break.” If you still want to end things when you have calmed down, talk about it then.
The process of communication in intimate relationships is complicated. There are many books and courses dedicated to effective communication so it’s hard to fully address it in a newspaper column. I have presented but a few guidelines, and certainly not a complete recipe for good communication. I do hope that you are both able to make some positive changes.
If you wish to ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, e-mail them at email@example.com. Consult a Counsellor is provided by registered clinical counsellors Nancy Bock, Diane Davies Leslie Wells, Andrew Lochhead and Sara Lynn Kang at pacific therapy & consulting inc. It appears every second Friday in the Record.