My husband and I spent the first several years of our marriage thinking we were communicating well, when in reality, our communication was completely dysfunctional. Once, over dinner with my parents, my dad asked me, “Amber, do you and Charlie even speak to each other?” I was taken aback, because it felt like we talked all the time?
There is a difference between talking and communicating, listening and understanding. Looking back, Charlie and I spent a lot of time talking but not much time communicating to understand. With therapy, and a lot of work, we have identified where we struggled to communicate, and have strived to do better. Here’s where we struggled, and what we’ve done to communicate better in our relationship:
#1. We brought the past into the present
Emotional baggage can be a major disruptor of communication. Charlie and I had a long history of hurt feelings toward each other, which led to defensiveness and reactivity in our conversations. Present issues were overshadowed by past experiences, and we always ended up arguing over something from the past instead of the issue at hand. These days, we work to leave the past behind us. We will never completely forget the past, but we try our best to stay present and on topic when we have difficult conversations, leaving the past where it belongs.
#2. We blamed each other instead of the problem
In the hard years of our relationship, our fights always turned into a battle of wills over who was “right.” A conversation about a solvable problem devolved into childish arguments because we showed up as enemies instead of partners. Our new motto is, “us against the problem, not us against each other.” When we come to the table interested in working together as a team, and our communication is clear and collaborative, the problem becomes easier to solve.
#3. We didn’t understand each other’s needs
My husband and I respond to conflict very differently. I have an anxious attachment style, so conflict gives me a lot of anxiety. I tend to rush toward the problem, wanting to hash it out right away (even if we are yelling at each other) just to get it over with. Charlie, on the other hand, can be more avoidant. He wants to move away from conflict, often needing to step away and regroup before addressing a problem. Our arguments used to include an extra layer of frustration because I would chase him down trying to have the argument right now, and he would evade me. I would become anxious and chase him even more, and he would become frustrated and pull away even more. Now that we understand how we both process conflict, and what we need in order to feel safe in the conflict, we are better able to argue without triggering each other further. I try to give him space when he needs it, and he tries to reassure me that space doesn’t mean “I don’t love you.” In fact, it often means the opposite.
#4. We let things fester
The paradox of avoiding conflict is that is brings more conflict, not less. Charlie and I, especially at the beginning of our marriage, tried to stuff our feelings down when we were upset. No need to disrupt the peace and whatnot. We bottled everything up and then acted surprised when it all came exploding out. Now, we try our best to communicate our feelings and needs in the moment.
#5. We didn’t keep external factors in check
Oof, this one hurts the ego to talk about. I think one of the biggest problems during the hard years of our marriage was that we let things like work stress, kid stress, health stress, and friend stress seep into our marriage stress. We weren’t keeping those outside influences in their place. Instead, we brought them home. I don’t think it’s possible to completely compartmentalize the external stress that harms our ability to communicate. Instead, Charlie and I have simply learned the art of recognizing and acknowledging when an unrelated stressor is making it hard to communicate.
When you’re in the pit of communicating badly with your partner, it can feel like an almost impossible problem to solve. I’m here to tell you that your communication and satisfaction in your relationship can radically improve by making small, subtle adjustments like the ones here.
Please share your own thoughts or ideas in the comments below!