Though husbands and wives communicate with one another in a variety of ways, the fine art of talking together is probably the most important. On the business side of the relationship, talking is a way of sharing information, discussing options and making decisions. On the personal side of the relationship, talking is a way of sharing experiences, encouraging one another and communicating love. Talking together is also a way of negotiating or renegotiating the ground rules of the relationship. Usually those ground rules just develop on their own in the early stages of the relationship. We don’t talk about them until they no longer work well or they cause a problem for one or both partners.
When stress is low, talking together is much easier. When stress is high, talking is much more difficult because strong feelings are swirling around while thunder threatens in the background. At those times the strongest impulse is to reduce the emotional overload as quickly as possible. If we follow that impulse we may either: 1) change into argument mode and try to win; or 2) we may retreat and look for a safe place to hide until the storm is over. Retreating until strong feelings subside is a necessary tool when we need to calm ourselves down. However, it does not resolve the issue. To resolve the issue we need to engage with one another again in conversation about the issue until a resolution is reached. If partners do not engage again with one another you can be sure that the same storm will return on a regular schedule.
Arguing does not resolve anything any more than hiding. If arguing is carried to its natural conclusion, one person wins and one loses. Over time, most couples find this gets old. The winner is alone at the top; the loser is alone at the bottom and feels defeated. Of course, since probably all couples argue from time to time, I usually advise, "When you argue, make sure that your partner does not lose." That’s when they look at me like I am from another planet. I explain, "You are not opponents; you are on the same team." I insist that they try it.
To resolve an issue partners need to change into another kind of communication – one in which both partners feel like they are winning, they feel good about it, and they stay connected. The most distinctive feature of this communication is that it is heart to heart. You bring yourself to the conference table – your heart, your mind, your feelings, your love, and your dreams of how you want things to be. Here are some things that couples have told me helps them win together.
First, give of yourself to your partner. It is easier and safer to tell your partner something about him or her but that doesn’t work very well. Give of yourself to your partner. To do this start every statement with phrases like, "I notice, I think, I feel, I would like." This requires risk and generosity. Both are necessary in a loving relationship. Be careful not to camouflage a major criticism in your statement. Your partner will hear it immediately and then you will both go nowhere.
Second, slow the process down. This takes discipline and self control. When something really matters, people tend to speed up their speech and jump in on top of one another or talk on and on. If you are speaking, speak slowly and keep your statements brief. If you are listening, wait your turn to speak. You may want to sit down. It will help you relax and slow the pace. I told one couple to communicate for a week only by writing notes to each other. That really slowed things down. It became a game for them and before the end of the week they were laughing at themselves.
Third, make an understanding check. Now we are getting close to the heart, so be careful. Make sure you heard your partner correctly. To do that, simply ask, "What I understood you to say is," paraphrase what you heard and then ask, "Did I get it right?" Your partner will tell you if you are correct or not. Don’t go on until you get a shared understanding of what was said. Remember this is a relationship of love. In a relationship of love people want very much to know their partner understands them. In this step the mind and heart are bound together. The mind understands what you said. The heart says, "I understand you." When people feel understood they are 80% of the way to a solution. In fact, some couples find they don’t need to go any farther than that. They are completely distracted by that moment of closeness. But, if they do, here are two more suggestions.
Fourth, brainstorm on solutions. Get as many options out there as you can think of. This is the mind to mind part and requires as much creative thinking as you can come up with.
Fifth, make the solution tentative. You can do this with most things. Try it for a week, a month or for this year. Agree to talk about how things went at the end of the time period.
Finally, fix dinner together. Or, if you prefer, go out to eat and celebrate. I have had lots of couples tell me that following their late afternoon appointments with me they would go out to eat. After all, the children were already with the sitter and this was a good opportunity. Who knows? Maybe it was going out to eat together that made the difference anyway since they were talking together as they ate.