Your Two Best Tools for Better Communication with Your Partner
“We need tools to communicate better.” This is one of the most common things I hear couples say when I first start counseling with them. And of course, it makes sense. After all, anyone going to marriage counseling or couples therapy would expect to learn ways of communicating better with his or her partner.
There’s more to the story here, though. In order for couples to communicate better and grow closer together, they need more than tools. They need to become skilled at using those tools, and that means that they themselves need to grow and change.
Let me try to illustrate what I mean. The other day I went to the barber and my son and I got a haircut. The barber had plenty of tools—a few different kinds of scissors, a razor, trimmer, a couple of combs, the whole lot. He was really good and gave my son and I great haircuts. If I had tried to cut my son’s hair, I’d certainly have the right tools, but I wouldn’t know how to use them very well. I’d need to learn to use them better to ever have a chance of cutting my son’s hair well.
Makes sense, right? The same is true in relationships. There are some important communication skills that can be taught, but these tools alone aren’t enough for couples to create lasting intimacy. These other “tools” are, in my opinion, the best tools for better communication in relationships. And, though they require hard work from each partner in therapy, they too can be learned.
So what are they?
Tool #1: Managing Your Feelings
“Managing your feelings”? Sounds easy, right? Well, not really. Especially in couple relationships. Partners in intimate relationships have the unique ability to bring out each other’s deepest emotional pain. For this reason, dealing with your feelings in positive, healthy ways (therapists call this regulating emotions) often requires hard work.
Physical pain and emotional pain are processed in the same part of the brain. Wild, huh? When you touch a hot surface, you instantly react by pulling your hand away, right? This removes the danger of further harm. The same goes for emotional pain. We all have ways of reacting to emotional pain, and usually they’re not pretty: blaming others, shaming ourselves, escaping with substances or behaviors, withdrawing, being critical of others, judging, codependency, the list goes on and on.
Managing your feelings simply means being able to tolerate what we feel so that we don’t have to react in harmful ways. When couples are reactive with each other, they can viciously attack each other, each partner wounding the other as they react to their own pain. When partners are able to tolerate their feelings, they don’t react like they used to anymore. New possibilities for couples to talk about their deepest fears, longings, and hurts emerge.
Building this tolerance for difficult feelings takes time and effort. While there are practices like mindfulness to help, think of it as strengthening your “emotional muscles”: You just gotta keep hitting the gym. But how to do this when it comes to feelings?
That’s where the second tool comes in.
Tool #2: Reflecting on Your Feelings
As we turn inward to consider our emotional life, we become curious about ourselves. We become more intimately acquainted with our innermost selves, including those parts of us that have been too painful to examine before. This sacred work is critical to becoming whole.
There are lots of ways to reflect on your feelings. You might try journaling, meditation, therapy, going to a process group, various forms of prayer, mindfulness—whatever works for you to sift through your experience. Often it’s really helpful to do this work with someone like a therapist or a valued, trusted friend; the more that person can help you sit with and sort out whatever’s on your mind without trying to change it, the easier it will be. (But just FYI, it’s still going to be hard.)
As partners learn to do this for themselves, they usually learn to do it with each other also. It’s pretty awesome to watch couples learn to handle and be curious about each partner’s feelings in my office.
As each partner learns to manage, reflect on, and articulate his feelings, what felt at first like the awkward and sometimes difficult use of “tools” becomes an intricate dance of intimate communication.
When couples are dancing this way, they don’t talk about tools anymore. They really don’t need them anymore, or the tools they do use have become a part of them.
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