Effective communication is a requirement for effective problem solving in an intimate relationship. While most of us communicate effectively in our work, effectiveness has a different meaning in an intimate relationship. It is important to explore those different meanings.
How we communicate is the problem more often than what we communicate. If the ways we communicate do not work with our partner, then our messages of concern, hope, and love may not get through. Without clear communication, we cannot make our needs known and cannot negotiate to meet them. We must genuinely consider the feelings of our partner as well as our own. If tact and sensitivity do not moderate our messages, then the reactions of our partner may block the message we intend to send.
In an intimate relationship, there are ways to communicate that are useful and ways to communicate that are harmful. It is useful to be direct, saying what needs to be said; it is harmful to be indirect, with subtle hints and ambiguous statements out of context. It is useful to be clear and precise, spelling out exactly what we mean; it is harmful to be vague, leaving it to our partner to figure out what we really mean. It is useful to be specific, giving concrete details or examples; it is harmful to be general, leaving plenty of room for our partner to misunderstand. It is useful to be honest, to say what is really in our heart; it is harmful to be dishonest, to say half of the truth, to lie outright. It is useful to be respectful, to recognize the right of our partner to their own beliefs, their own feelings, their own decisions; it is harmful to be controlling, using communication to bend our partner to our will. It is useful to be tactful; it is harmful to be insulting, damaging our partner’s sense of self-worth.
What gets in the way of direct, clear, specific, honest yet tactful communication more than anything else is our own history. Some of us learned to be tactful. Others of us learned to use honesty without empathy to aggressively control those around us. We all learned from our families and our other unique life experiences that certain ways of communicating worked. These ways became styles that we now accept as part of the way we are. Many of these styles have been useful in much of our lives, so we need not discard them thoughtlessly. What we do need to do, in our relationships with our partners and our children, is to look at these patterns of communication we adopted, asking ourselves as adults which styles we want to keep and which styles we want to change.
Some feelings may be difficult to communicate in ways that do not destroy love. For many of us, anger is the hardest to handle in our relationships. But we need to learn to communicate our feelings, all of them, in ways that are not destructive. Suppressed feelings leak out. They may show themselves in our expressions, in our movements, in the closeness or distance we maintain in our relationship.
Mind reading is the enemy of clear communication and understanding. In an intimate relationship, we cannot expect our partner to know what we want without asking for it. “If you loved me you would know” doesn’t work because our partner is either wrong, or gets tired of playing a guessing game. On the other hand, if we are constantly hearing something different from what our partner actually says, because we think we already know what they really mean, they will get tired of trying to be heard.
A number of tools have been developed which help us communicate in ways that help our relationship. These tools enable us to express what is really there in ways that do not alienate our partner, but rather build the trust and closeness upon which an intimate relationship thrives.
In the end, the only useful ways to communicate are those which actually lead to a successful resolution of the issues in question. This means communication based on mutual acceptance, respect, openness and trust.
~ Lori Heyman Gordon