Relationships are complex. Whether at work, home, family or friends – our relationships make up so much of what is important in our lives. Despite this, relationships are also a source of struggle for many of us, if not all of us at one time or another. This is because few of us are taught how to create and sustain relationships based on fulfilment or what we really value. Unless we are taught or seek out how to create meaningful relationships we can find ourselves in relationships where we are in the same kind of pain or discomfort over and over again.
Being in an intimate relationship or part of a family doesn’t guarantee connection, love or understanding. None of these things ensure seeing others or being seen as we would like. When connection gets lost it’s very easy to lose sight of what we are doing and why we are in the relationship in the first place.
When couples come to see me for relationship therapy sometimes connection has got murky. These are 5 common communication problems I see and some alternative approaches that may be useful in creating more meaningful connections.
1.The Need To Be Right
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we are right.
But when we become invested in ‘being right’ in arguments, it’s easy to get blindsided by the principle of our position, rather than benefitting our relationship itself. In other words, we can end up arguing for the sake of arguing. Sometimes we don’t even believe what we are saying. Our passion isn’t for the cause being argued, but our commitment to being right and winning. We may try to justify it as ‘logic’ or being ‘reasonable’, but that can imply that another view is therefore unreasonable, illogical – or even ‘emotional’. While intense or out-of-control emotions can be derailing, taking a compassionate emotional position in an argument can actually create a sense of intimacy. Stating how you feel – e.g. “I feel afraid”, “I feel lonely”, “I feel despairing” as a means of communicating, can be a simple and effective way to be clear about what’s going on for you without escalating an argument. Arguing from the position of needing to be right on the other hand, means that usually someone has to be wrong, and this process shuts down opportunities for empathy and closeness. If the need to be right is consistently stronger than the desire to connect, it’s time to reflect on how that might be affecting the relationship.
2. Selfishness & Martyrdom
Taking care of one’s self and one’s own needs is essential in any relationship. Being responsible for our own well-being is part of any meaningful connection. But when the default errs toward consistently affirming one’s own needs rather than the needs of the relationship, connection can fray. Like the right / wrong issue, consistently acting selfish means that there is, quite simply, not a flow of love between you. Discussions get bogged and connection gets stuck. Over time lovers, partners and friends become resentful. Regularly not being heard or acknowledged can lead to communication shutdowns. Likewise, consistently devaluing one’s own needs and not speaking up or allowing space to be heard, leaves others without all the information they need to open up useful dialogues. Sometimes withholding personal needs is undertaken from a place of generosity and compassion. But sometimes it’s manipulative, intended to induce guilt in others. The Martyr archetype is a prime example of this behaviour and can be as unhelpful to intimacy as blatant selfishness. Being willing to recognise the role selfishness or martyrdom plays is a useful way to begin the process of change. Instead consider what the relationship needs to move forward. Acknowledging that the problem is the problem and together you can work through it, is a step towards solving it.
3. Black and White Thinking
Related to Point 1: needing to be right, black and white thinking leads to very rigid and narrow emotional expression. Black and white thinking implies only two alternatives;
- smart/stupid etc.
Everywhere we look society reinforces this kind of thinking. However, the issue is not that black and white ideas do not exist, indeed they do; but there is a full spectrum of colour and possibilities that get overlooked when we simply skip to only black and white. When we only ever see these two options, we will always miss the dawning of the rainbow.
If you are inclined to black and white thinking, a helpful self-reflective question is
“What might happen if…?”
to inject a third or fourth possibility, opening up the rainbow rather than jumping to a black and white conclusion.
4. Lashing Out In Response To Hurt
Everyone gets hurt in relationships. The capacity for hurt accompanies the capacity for being vulnerable. Without vulnerability there is little scope for connection. Everyone says silly things from time to time or is on the receiving end of things they don’t like or that hurt their feelings. If this is a chronic issue, there is more at play than an article like this can manage. If however a few terse words escalate into full-scale dramatics, there are ways you can bring yourselves back to the connection you want.
When we get hurt we often lash out as a means of protecting ourselves. Often it’s not considered or thoughtful. It’s simply a reaction to pain or fear – actual or perceived, sometimes called the ‘fight/flight’ response. Using Point 3 above consider:
- What might happen if instead of reacting – you stopped? Walked away from the escalation?
- Then take 10 minutes and ask yourself “What do I need right now?” or “What would be really helpful to me right now?”
- Close your eyes and breathe. Give yourself permission to find that answer. What do you need right now? What would be helpful right now?
You might find
- you need reassurance
- you need a snack
- you need to go for a walk
- you need a cuddle
- you need a shower etc.
Try giving yourself that before returning to the situation. When you are ready to return you may like to start by saying “I am sorry I said/did xxxxx, I realised what I really needed in that moment was xxxxx”. Remember to breathe.
5. Bad Habits
Have you ever found yourself in the same argument over and over? Depending upon the context of the argument, sometimes we can get very caught up in the habit of arguing. For many, arguments are simply a habit learned in our families or previous relationships. Argument habits can include:
- getting caught up waiting for our turn to speak rather than hearing the other side
- cutting others off
- mimicry or being dismissive ( ‘stop being so silly / that’s so ridiculous / you’re such an idiot’)
- speaking too much or not at all and controlling the situation by dominating or withholding communication (see Point 2)
For some people, bickering and arguing is a default or even a game. Some people enjoy the thrill of the escalating tension, not because they are mean, but rather they enjoy arguments for argument’s sake. If both parties are not aware of this, arguments can intensify quickly and cause pain, even if it is not acknowledged. Little jibes can be experienced as hostilities and over time become painful wounds.
If you are in a cycle of bad arguments, it’s time to consider seeking help to manage your communication and getting assistance to learn new ways of expressing yourself. After all, communication is at the heart of all our relationships and the more you learn to be an effective communicator, the more fulfilling your relationships will be.