How To Communicate With Your Spouse When You Can’t
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Becoming a parent can have a dramatic effect on the relationship you have with your partner, one that is often more profound than new moms might expect.
In 2009, researchers found that couples’ satisfaction with their relationship declines within the first few years of marriage. For couples with children, the decline of relationship satisfaction is nearly twice as steep.
If you’ve had a baby, that statistic is probably not surprising to you. I know that the months after my husband and I had Little Bo were some of the hardest our relationship ever faced–even though we’d been friends for 10 years, together for 8, and married for 5. This phenomenon isn’t unique to us: I’ve spoken with countless moms in my mom group who went through (or are going through) something similar.
When we have these kinds of post-baby relationship blues, we know that the answer to our problems involves love and respect. If we can offer these things to our spouse, our odds of conflict resolution go up dramatically.
But this solution isn’t quite as simple as it sounds, in large part because love and respect must be effectively communicated.
The unfortunate reality is, we don’t really know how to talk about talking.
Have you ever sat down with your partner to discuss how you have discussions–a meta conversation, if you will?
In the flurry of excitement that surrounds the birth of a child, it’s easy to be so focused on caring for the new baby that you have little energy left to focus on caring for your spouse. Words have the power to make or break a relationship, so discussing how you use them is incredibly important–and, unfortunately, not done often enough.
The good news is, almost every relationship has the potential to benefit from one of these meta conversations. Here’s how to have one:
SET UP A TIME AND PLACE
Let your partner know you want to talk about how you talk to each other. Choose an occasion that doesn’t follow a big disagreement, and allocate a specific amount of uninterrupted time to this conversation. If you can’t have this conversation when the kids are already away, it might be a good idea to get a sitter.
The purpose of this conversation is to discuss how you speak to one another. It’s not an opportunity to rehash old arguments, although you might need to discuss communication that took place in past disagreements. Set the expectation that this will happen, but agree beforehand to try to limit the conversation to an evaluation of your communication–not who was right or wrong. Aim for the tone of the conversation to be friendly and collaborative rather than hostile and accusatory.
I-Statements are perhaps one of the most important communication tools in your relationship tool belt, and you should use them as much as possible in this kind of discussion! An I-Statement is way of communicating that focuses on the feelings of the speaker rather than on how the speaker characterizes the listener. Here are some examples:
“When you leave dishes in the sink, I feel like my effort to keep the kitchen clean isn’t appreciated.”
“My understanding was that you agreed to help put the baby to bed. I feel like my time is not valuable to you when I have to take care of the baby by myself.”
The purpose of this way of speaking is to let your partner know how their language (verbal or otherwise) makes you feel without imparting blame. In a conversation about how you and your partner talk to each other, the I-statements you use might sound more like:
“When I am shouted at, I feel unloved.”
Talk to your partner about how you can incorporate more I-Statements into your conversations.
Be advised that statements like “I feel like you’re a jerk” aren’t really I-Statements! Your tone when delivering an I-Statement is important: keep it as even-tempered as possible. With the wrong tone, even neutral words can sound accusatory.
Put yourself in your partner’s shoes. Imagine how your communication might make them feel, and tell them. Empathy forges connection, and connection fosters peace, love and respect–all things a relationship needs! Plus, when people feel genuinely understood, they are more willing to cooperate, which is always a good thing.
“If I had worked all day and came home to someone who kept asking me when I was going to mow the lawn, I think I would feel tired and irritated. I know your job is demanding and we’re both busy, which is why this keeps getting put off, but the lawn still needs to be mowed. How can I ask about the lawn in a way that won’t be so frustrating?”
EXPLAIN WHAT YOU’RE HEARING
When your partner expresses something, let him know what you’re hearing. Paraphrasing or summarizing what has been said gives the other person an opportunity to correct misunderstandings.
Sometimes our partners’ actions speak louder than their words. Explaining what your partner’s actions are saying to you may help him be more aware of behaviors he previously thought were insignificant.
“When you tell me you are too busy to go on a date but make time to see your friend, your actions communicate to me that your friend is more of a priority than our relationship.”
TAKE TIME TO SELF REFLECT
Consider the feelings that have motivated your communication in the past. Sometimes we have difficulty communicating effectively because we haven’t taken the time to understand what we are actually feeling and why we’re really feeling it. It may be helpful to share these reflections with your partner so that they can better understand how you communicate and what prompts your reactions.
“I’ve come to realize I respond to hurt with anger rather than sadness.”
BE THE BIGGER PERSON
Is your own communication a part of the problem? Own it! We have a natural bias toward placing blame on others before ourselves. Challenge this by actively looking for instances in which you ought to accept responsibility for miscommunication.
This doesn’t come naturally and will probably feel very–nay, extremely–unfair, especially if your partner isn’t willing to accept responsibility for past issues.
But it’s important to remember that we cannot force others to accept fault, overcome their bias, or change. We can only do those things for ourselves.
Fortunately, a demonstrated willingness to accept responsibility and ask for forgiveness when necessary often makes others willing to reciprocate. But this may not happen immediately and it may not happen at all. Make peace with that, and do your best to be the bigger person regardless.
This is the most challenging–but most important–thing you can do for any relationship. And it doesn’t require you to be a doormat! You needn’t take responsibility for everything, but you do need to be willing to take a truly honest look at what YOU can do to improve the communication in your relationship. This will ultimately be more fruitful than focusing on where your partner falls short.
KNOW WHEN TO COOL DOWN
If tensions begin to run high, take a time out! When we argue, it’s easy to look past love and only see anger and resentment. Before things take a turn for the worse, take a break and remind your partner that you love them.
“Things are getting heated right now. I love you, and I know this is frustrating. I think we’ve made progress in _____, and I want you to know I appreciate your willingness to _____. Let’s come back to this another time.”
KNOW WHEN TO GET HELP
You may find that it is very difficult to have this kind of conversation with your partner. If you sense things between you are only becoming more tense, this may be an indication that you would both benefit from working with a qualified counseling professional.
This doesn’t mean you have failed. It just means you need support–and that’s okay!
If your partner is unwilling to get this support with you, don’t be afraid to seek it out yourself. Since change usually starts with you, individual counseling with a provider you trust can still be extremely useful!
Have you ever talked with your spouse about how you talk to each other? How did that discussion change the quality of your communication and benefit your relationship?
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