We can all use a tune-up on our communication skills, especially the ones we use in close relationships. Often, at the beginning of a relationship, we are sweeter than sugar, but as time goes on, it’s easy to lapse into irritability and unpleasantness when conflict arises.
Mario and Janet have been together for three years, and their arguments are getting increasingly bitter. Lately, they have been arguing about Janet staying at work well into the evening every day. Her schedule means most of the household responsibilities, including the care of his children and hers, are left up to Mario. Mario gets loud when he is angry, and Janet clams up.
Both of them have been divorced and have bad memories of verbal fights. Neither of them wants the relationship to fail. Mario has an Employee Assistance Program at work that offers a few sessions of free, confidential counseling to employees. He and Janet agree to see a counselor.
The counselor has Mario and Janet practice identifying their feelings, stating their concerns in a neutral way, and asking for what they want. For example, instead of accusing Janet of being selfish and not caring about the house and the children, Mario learns to lower his voice and speak more calmly. He explains to Janet that he is feeling resentful and frustrated, because he believes he has an unfair burden of housework and child care after his own demanding day at work. Janet learns to stick with the conversation long enough to explain the pressure she feels at her job and to acknowledge and validate Mario’s feelings, instead of avoiding the problem, which makes Mario even more agitated.
The counselor helps them to consider alternatives and to remember they are on the same team. Janet is able to rearrange some work responsibilities so that she can begin working shorter hours in a month or so. Mario agrees that he will shoulder the additional home duties for that period of time, and they agree to hire a babysitter one night each week so Mario can go out with some buddies.
Some communication basics to keep in mind:
- Conflict is not a bad thing. Nastiness is. Work on assertive communication, which means expressing your feelings, describing your concerns as objectively as possible, and asking directly for what you need.
- Reassure your partner that you value his or her opinion, even if you disagree. Make sure you mean it.
- Create a “safe zone” for communication. No one is going to open up to you if you belittle them or have a fit every time you dislike what they say.
- If your partner speaks to you in an abusive or demeaning manner, or is physically abusive, seek help on your own from a counselor or an advocacy agency (such as a domestic violence program). Couples counseling may not be safe or appropriate if you are feeling frightened.
Northwest authors Jennifer Y. Levy-Peck, PhD, a psychologist and her husband Charles Peck, had to explore introvert/extrovert differences in their own relationship. You can participate in the creation of their book "Magic at Midlife: Your Relationship Roadmap for Romance After 40" (and enter to win a $100 Amazon gift card) by sharing your experiences in a survey: www.surveymonkey.com/s/MidlifeRelationships.
Previous Magic at Midlife Columns
Tending Your Relationship as You Tend to Aging Parents
Learning from Your Relationship History
When Extrovert Meets Introvert
What Do You Want in the Long Run?