Entries in communication (5)
“He’s not calling!!! Why is he not calling?” These words kept running through my mind. “*Andrew said he would let me know if we were going to hang out tonight, so why isn’t he trying to reach me?” I struggled with whether or not to call him. It was 4 in the afternoon and I still didn’t know how my evening was going to pan out.
This was my mental battle one night a few years ago…confusing and frustrating at best. It was a new relationship. Andrew and I had made potential plans for an evening date. Either a movie or dinner was on our agenda. One of the issues was the busy day he had and he was not sure if he was going to finish all his commitments in time to go out. He said he would let me know later in the day if he would be available. My response was to ask him to keep me updated.
This is where my unspoken expectation led to disappointment. I wish I had asked him to define…later. When he contacted me at 10 that night, I felt let down, grumpy and irritable. I had turned down other offers from my friends in anticipation of an evening with him.
The next day I began to think about my disappointment and what had happened. And, I wondered: from where do expectations come?
Typically they stem from two places:
- Past experiences
Mine came from the former.
Families play a huge part in what we believe and to what standard we hold others. In this scenario the phrase “keep me updated” is a commonly used request in my family. It means that if we are making tentative plans, we will keep in contact with one another to update if we can keep the date. If we encounter anything that will affect our plans we make it a priority to inform them immediately. This is done out of respect for the other person.
Every family has a belief system. It may not be verbalized but it is implied through the family’s conduct. My belief system involved respecting other people’s time as if it is our own. When I did not hear from Andrew until 10 o'clock I felt like my time was not respected. Honestly, it offended me.
Here are some tips on how to have healthy relationships in spite of expectations and belief systems:
- Recognize what expectations are present.
- Decide what belief is attached to that expectation.
- Determine if the expectation is reasonable and realistic. (Are you asking too much of another individual? If so, dig deeper to try and figure out why you would have such high unattainable goals for another person.)
- If the expectation is reasonable and achievable, express the expectation to the other person.
- Be specific. (You have a right to your needs and you have a right to express why they are important to you.)
- Allow room for negotiation and compromise. (The other person may not feel the same way you do or may need to tweak something in order for it to meet both of your needs.)
- Follow through with what you have agreed upon as suitable to your relationship in terms of expectations.
I have learned to follow these steps in my relationships. I realize if I had known this information several years ago, the evening would have had a different ending.
I would have communicated with Andrew that if he was not able to free himself by 4, I would be able to go out with my friends and we could have a date another day. Instead of going to bed disappointed, I would have enjoyed an evening with friends and the satisfaction that my needs and expectations were being met in my relationship with Andrew.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy
One of the first things I remember learning in my training as Marriage and Family Therapist is this fact from communication theory:
“One cannot NOT communicate.”
The communication axiom, “One cannot NOT communicate,” has much to say (pun intended).
It is very common in couples that one of the partners has strong tendencies to “freeze” in conflict, “flee” from arguments and potentially difficult conversations. We will call this person the “Withdrawer.” This looks like shutting down, walking out of the room, hanging up the phone, and avoiding discussions.
The emotional trust in a relationship can be greatly damaged by the “communication” of not communicating. Sometimes, the partner married to a “Withdrawer” perceives the thoughts and feelings of the “withdrawer” as inherently selfish and narcissistic.
Here is what partners think the “Withdrawer” is saying:
- “I don’t think you are worth the energy to communicate with.”
- “I don’t care enough for you to do what is difficult for me.”
- “I despise that you are so needy.”
- “My needs are more important than yours.”
Sometimes, the “withdrawer” IS thinking that. That is a whole different blog. More often, I find that the “withdrawer” is simply scared.
For most “withdrawers” I know, they are really thinking and feeling the following:
- “I am scared that I will never please you.”
- “I just freeze and don’t know what to say when you are mad.”
- “You are a better arguer than I am and I can’t think that fast.”
- “I want to make you happy, but I don’t know how.”
Sometimes we need help to get out of communication patterns that we are stuck in. If you are a “withdrawer” or married to one, slow down the conversation and communicate what you are experiencing. Be compassionate and give one another the benefit of the doubt!
I don’t know of anyone that actually likes conflict. I certainly know some who do better at it than others… like my wife, for instance! It’s not that she can out-argue me, it’s just that her perseverance is so much better that I eventually raise the white flag because I, in wimp-like fashion, am too tired to proceed. Doing conflict well is an art, not a science. But there are some things to keep in mind that might help you develop your ability to fight in a productive manner. Here’s the list:
- Keep your communication short… don’t lecture each other.
- Don’t use absolutes (I almost said “Never use absolutes” :)
- Concentrate on listening and not what you’re going to say next.
- Work toward a mutually agreed upon solution, not who will win and who will lose.
If you follow these simple guidelines I am convinced that you will not only see better conflict resolution, but also less volatile conflict when you have it. Last, let me remind you that just because you don’t have a lot of conflict doesn’t mean that it’s not there. Conflict communicated is better than ill-feelings stuffed inside. So when you fight, fight fair!
There is an method of marriage counseling that remains popular among therapists working with couples in conflict. This approach assumes that the key to marital contentment lies in learning better communication skills. A satisfying relationship, according to this view, is the result of better listening, increased empathy, and a focus on conflict resolution techniques.
Here's the truth: You can be a master at conflict resolution and still be miserable in your marriage.
I experienced a particular a-ha moment while attending graduate school, watching the video of a counseling session in which a couple's marital dissatisfaction was being addressed using this conflict resolution method. The session was being presented as an example of good technique, but I was struck by an awareness that after all their counseling, the wife seemed to be no more connected to her husband than before. They had learned how to manage conflict without learning to experience connection.
There is, of course, benefit to learning how to fight better. No one would argue the benefits of controlled anger, empathetic listening, or problem solving. But the benefit of learning these skill tends to be disappointing after a while as a couple realizes they still feel lonely in their marriage. The removal of conflict does not assure the renewal of love.
Psychologist John Gottman is a leader in marriage research and has spent decades studying the characteristics of marriages that flourish and of marriages that fail. His concludes that there is no evidence to support a belief that good marriages are built by learning particular communication styles. A focus on CONNECTION is more important that a focus on communication when it comes to experiencing a healthy marriage.
Simply stated, the question of How can we enhance or friendship? has far greater importance than the question How can we resolve our differences? Rather than focusing on your spouse's inadequacies (and wanting to change them), give attention to the shifts you might make to encourage a more intimate connection. And if you need help, find a counselor that will guide you toward the changes that really matter.
For more information on John Gottman's research and conclusions, read his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
Dissect any argument between a man and a woman and this is probably what you'll find: the conflict has little to do with what each is saying, but much to do with what each is meaning. More specifically, the argument is likely fueled by a misunderstanding of each other's message. They may be using the same words, but they're speaking different languages.
This communication gap between men and women has been researched and documented in every culture. We know it exists, and yet nearly every couple that comes in for marriage counseling acts as though it didn't. Instead of recognizing gender differences, the husband assumes his wife means what he would mean if he spoke her words. And she does the same in return. No wonder they end up frustrated and angry.
So, how can you improve your communication with your spouse? First of all, recognize that real differences exist and stop expecting your spouse to be like you. Next, as soon as you feel another conflict coming on, change your agenda. Switch from your normal goal of winning the argument ("If he/ she would just listen to me...") to the new goal of understanding your spouse. Stop talking, take a deep breath, and speak softly while you say this: I want to understand what you mean and why this is important to you, so please tell me. Then listen... listen... listen. If something isn't clear, ask about it, and then listen again.
Be prepared for this change. Decide to do it now, before you face your next conflict, because waiting until you are in the moment will be too late. If you do this one thing, most of your arguments will be diffused before they turn into a fight.
And men, if you need a little more help you may want to try using The Manslater...