Do you and your partner have a hard time communicating? Do simple conversations seem to end up in an argument? Do you find yourself choosing not to talk at all just to prevent conflict? Have you lost hope or doubt that you will ever be able to have productive and meaningful conversations with your partner again?
First of all, you’re not alone. This breakdown in couple's communication, as frustrating as it is, is not uncommon. Many couples get to a point where they experience this same kind of distance and volatility in their relationship. And yes, it is completely and utterly maddening, not to mention exhausting. Other feelings may also come up such as anger, sadness, powerlessness, and hopelessness.
You may have judgment toward yourself or your partner. You may fear for the future of your relationship. You may feel a sense of guilt that your constant fighting is impacting the kids and other members of the family.
And yet, you still can’t seem to get out of this cycle.
In order to understand how your couple's communication has ended up here, you have to look past the content of the fights, past the words to see what’s really happening. What is going on underneath? This isn’t an easy task and this is one way couple's therapy can help.
Couple's therapy can help you see that what is actually happening between you and your partner (and what you are communicating to each other however unsuccessfully) is a reflection of unmet emotional needs.
When an emotional need is not met, we become angry, sad, defensive. We may feel alone, hurt and abandoned and react in a way that is really just us trying to protect ourselves from further hurt. However, the way we enact this protectiveness is not necessarily productive. Our self-protection takes the form of minimizing our partner, lashing out, isolating ourselves, using substances, numbing, holding on to every past offense and almost expecting to be hurt or disappointed so we’re not caught off guard, so we’re not stung by the surprise of being hurt, so we’re “prepared.” We don’t trust our partner not to hurt us again, so we put a wall up.
TRUST has been broken.
To make matters worse, our partners don’t always see the hurt underneath our protective mechanisms. All they see is the minimizing, the lashing out, the isolating, the substance use, etc. and naturally, they have their own reaction and urge to protect themselves. Their reaction may take the form of distancing, lashing back, shutting down, micromanaging, bringing up the past, etc. making it hard for us to see that, like us, there is also hurt and vulnerability underneath these behaviors. So, instead of responding to their hurt from a compassionate place, we react to their behavior. This time we might yell louder, criticize, blame and so on and so forth.
If this sounds familiar, it is very likely
You and your partner are caught in a cycle.
Your ways of protecting yourselves are triggering each other and playing out in your couple's communication. This cycle occurs over and over maybe with different conversations or maybe with the same conversation. Somehow, without warning, you find yourselves in it again and again.
Many of us don’t realize this is what’s happening. We can’t see past our intense emotions. We’re preoccupied with who’s right and who’s wrong, focused on defending and justifying ourselves not realizing we are only exacerbating the disconnection and drifting further and further apart.
So how do we stop this cycle?
First, we need to understand there are other factors at play. For instance, one reason we don’t just communicate our emotional needs to our partner is simply that many of us don’t know how. We’re not well-versed in emotions and have not developed the language and skill to name our vulnerability. This is another way couple's therapy can help – by developing your emotional vocabulary and teaching you how to communicate in an honest, genuine, sensitive and vulnerable way. This may be really uncomfortable at first, but with the support of a therapist/ally, it can get easier over time.
And of course, the other reason we don’t just communicate our emotional needs is because many times we don’t know what those are. There are so many different feelings muddied together, it can be difficult to sort out all the nuanced emotions.
Part of the work is getting to know yourself.
what triggers you
what your protective mechanisms look like
what behaviors you exhibit that trigger your partner
how you behave when stressed
how you behave when you’ve had ample self-care
what connection looks like to you
when you feel most vulnerable.
Understanding yourself on this level is necessary for the relationship. It can provide clarity for both you and your partner. It can help you soften and have compassion toward each other.
Of course, self-awareness is especially hard in the heat of an argument. Things are happening so fast. In a matter of seconds, a simple conversation about what’s for dinner explodes into a shouting match and unending laundry list of every offense to date. This is why it’s so important to SLOW DOWN.
PRACTICE THE PAUSE.
Pausing allows us the space and time to not say the mean thing we were about to say just then. It allows us to actually think about how to be different in this moment and respond from a conscious place instead of reacting from a triggered place. It gives us the opportunity to remember our partner’s triggers and be sensitive to them.
When we respond in a conscious way and share our vulnerability, it can be easier for our partner to take us in. It can be the difference between their wall/defense coming down ever-so-slightly or shooting right back up. Small successes are key. It is in these successes that we slowly start to heal each other and learn to trust one another again. Acknowledging these successes aloud also helps motivate both partners to keep the momentum going, shifting the dynamic over time from maladaptive to a place of connection and closeness.