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by Tammy Fletcher, M.A.

Ever heard or spoken anything like the statements below?

“I assumed she was mad, so I shut down.”
“I suspect he is cheating, so why bother?”
“She acts like she is sick of me.”
“He should know what I want sexually...why do I have to tell him?”

Couples communication is sometimes confusing. This article will address some common ways of thinking and reacting with your partner, and offer a few more productive substitutes. If your goal is to get out of your own head and really relate to your partner wherever s/he is, then decide how to respond, keep reading. happy

Let’s start with some statements that have proven to be less than helpful for most couples.

“I assume....”
“I suspect...”
“I expect...”
“She should....”
“He should...”
“If he really loved me, he would.....”
“I guess she wants....”

Do you notice the common thread in all of the above? They are all based in guesswork and mindreading - they are one-sided. Even the best guess is not always accurate. Assumptions are not worth much unless we check them out with our partner.

In addition, “should” is one of the most toxic words we can apply to our partners or ourselves. A professor of mine used to say “we ‘should’ ourselves right into misery.”  

The good news about the statements above are that they are guideposts to change. If you are using those words, perhaps becoming aware of how and why you use them and the reactions they cause, can improve communication and understanding.  

On to more statements. These are a bit different. On the surface, they appear as futile as the first set. But looking deeper, they carry some important meaning behind the words.  

“HAPPY COUPLES SHOULD ALWAYS......” Ah, there’s that “should” again. And “always” is one of those sticky, troublesome words, too. Like “never” - absolutes are seldom helpful or accurate. But this statement, or variations of it, can help to point to what each of you believes does constitute a happy relationship. Is it realistic, like “Happy couples should always try to work things out without abuse“? Is it not quite possible without some change for you or your partner, like “Happy couples should always be open to discussing intimacy and compromise for a healthy sex life“? Or is it completely unrealistic, like “Happy couples never feel angry“? The original statement can be reworded to something like “For me to be happy in this relationship, I need...”

"WHY BOTHER?" This is one I hear sometimes as a counselor. A person shares a great deal of frustration, confusion, pain, sadness, and even anger about their partner. Yet any discussion of "where do you go from here" is met with "Why bother? She won't change. I can't do anything. I'm stuck. I don't even want to do anything about it. I just want you to make it better." This is a tough one, but the question "Why bother?" leads me to usually ask "I don't know. Why do you think it's worthwhile to stay or try with your partner?" Therapists are not magicians, and the work of putting a broken relationship back together is done mostly by the couple themselves, together and individually. If they don't want to, or are not ready, or are so sick of their partner they can't stand another day, it's sometimes useful to explore how it got that way and what options are available. Working on that feeling of being "stuck," how to start to change it if possible, or how to cope if you have decided you absolutely must stay is what happens next in most cases. Individual work is really helpful.

“IT‘S ALL HIS FAULT.” Like the statement directly above, this one is tough. Most of us know that it takes two to tango, in good times and in bad. Yet many individuals truly see their problems as completely the fault of the other partner. Venting about the problems is a start, but is not the answer for most people. Beyond venting comes “Then what are you doing there? Is there anything you enjoy about this person?” This can open the door to a more balanced view of the partner, as very few people see each other as 100% bad. The next question would be something like “Can you think of any ways you play a part in these challenges you and he face?” Another chance to add balance to the issues, both for the couple as a unit, as well as for the person who is hurting and venting.

"SHE TRIGGERS ________ FOR ME WHEN SHE DOES ______" Another "reaction" statement, but also one that can allow both parties to identify what the problems really are. The person being triggered can learn to identify the difference between that knee-jerk reaction and attach the feelings and emotions to the proper source, and the partner can gain empathy for the other's past and understanding as s/he learns new coping mechanisms. This can take some time, but it can be done very successfully. It puts the couple on the same side, in many cases, tackling issues of our separate pasts which we all face. And it allows the person being triggered to continue on whatever healing path they need to not have buttons pushed.

Finally, some ideas for ways to communicate in a more productive manner. Helpful statements look like this:

“I ASK...”
“I FEEL....”

And so on. These statements not only allow the speaker to own his/her own feelings, but they also communicate openness to hearing the other’s point of view without judgment or blame.

Guessing, second-guessing, assuming, expecting.....all those things lead to misunderstanding and a relationship with a phantom person who lives and argues with you inside your head. They may look like your partner, have some of the same attributes, be guilty of some of the same sins. But unless you are communicating to get to what’s real, now, outside your own thoughts and emotions, you may not have a clear picture of your partner. And vice versa!

Give this some thought and if you like, share it with your partner. Learning new habits can feel fake and awkward at first. That’s perfectly all right. You might even have fun trying to change your way of talking to one another.
For more information, a great book for couples is Feeling Good Together by Dr. David Burns.

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