Communication is vital to any healthy, connected relationship. Without communication, any relationship can fall apart. The problem is that sometimes communication is super easy and other times it can feel impossible.
We have no trouble telling our partner we appreciate that they brought us flowers or how much we love them. But when we need to bring up a problem, it’s a lot harder to find the words and say them aloud to our partner. We don’t want to hurt or upset them, yet often the problem is that we ourselves are hurt or upset.
But even when the situation is negative, you can still communicate clearly, effectively, and without causing damage to your relationship. It just takes remembering a few things and taking a few specific steps to how and when you communicate the issue.
You have the right to feel whatever you feel
Perhaps one of the biggest problems with communication is that we question our feelings. We’re hurt, angry, frustrated, or anxious and we wonder if we should be. Is it fair to feel that way? Is it right or wrong? Is it an overreaction?
Your feelings are your feelings. You have the right to feel whatever it is you feel. Even if someone else thinks it’s unfair, wrong, or overreacting, it’s still your right to feel that way.
It’s not your right to treat someone else poorly because of how you feel. It’s not your right to make someone else responsible for how you feel. But it is your right to feel that way and to express to your partner that you feel that way.
Your partner also has a right to their feelings
Just as you have the right to feel whatever you feel, so does your partner. This means they can disagree with your perception of a situation. They can feel hurt that you’re angry, or angry that you’re hurt. Again, just like you, they have the right to feel whatever they feel.
But also like you, they don’t get to treat you badly because of how they feel. They can express to you that they feel what they feel, even if it is in response to you expressing how you feel. In other words, when you decide to share your feelings with them, you need to be ready for them to do the same. You can’t expect it to be one-sided.
Each of you is responsible for your own feelings
No one can make you feel a certain way. We often think they do. We say things like, “My boyfriend made me so mad when he didn’t call me last night,” or “My wife really hurt me when she didn’t want to come to my baseball game.”
But your boyfriend didn’t make you mad by not calling. That’s how you chose to feel about it. And your wife didn’t hurt you by not going to your game. That’s how you chose to feel about it.
There’s nothing wrong with choosing to feel that way. But it’s important to know that it is your choice to feel that way. Your partner doesn’t hold a gun to your head and insist you feel this way. It’s a choice you make.
It’s important to remember this for two reasons. One is that you are being accountable for your own feelings. You’re accepting responsibility for them and understanding that ultimately, they’re on you.
The other is that when your partner expresses hurt or anger because of how you feel, remembering that each of you is responsible for your own feelings will help you avoid feeling bad because of how your partner now feels. Because you’re each entitled to your own feelings and you’re each responsible for your own feelings, when you can remember these things, it’s a lot easier to discuss those feelings, how they came to be, and how they can be avoided in the future.
You have a responsibility to be honest with your partner
When you decide to commit to a relationship, you take on a responsibility to be honest with your partner about your feelings. This responsibility applies to both good and bad feelings. You have an obligation not just to your partner, but to yourself and the relationship as a whole, to be honest and open about your feelings as they relate to the relationship.
This doesn’t mean you need to give your partner a play-by-play of your feelings all day. You don’t need to text him how mad you are that Becky took the last of the coffee in the breakroom and didn’t make more.
But it does mean that you must be honest and open about feelings that arise because of your partner’s behavior or feelings that can impact the relationship, like grieving a loved one’s death or being diagnosed with depression.
This can be a heavy responsibility. You can even feel like it shouldn’t be your responsibility. But it is and if you want your relationship to last and remain strong, you need to be willing to take a deep breath and do it anyway.
Wait until you have control over the feelings
When we first start to feel hurt, angry, or another negative feeling, that feeling can be overwhelming. If we try to express ourselves in that moment, we might do it by screaming, yelling, crying, throwing things, or doing something else that isn’t productive and probably won’t do anything to resolve the problem.
Wait until you’re able to have more control over the feelings. This might be just a few minutes, a few hours, or even a few days. If it takes more than a few days to get control over the feelings, you might need to consider talking to a therapist about why you’re struggling so much.
After you’ve gotten the feelings under control, choose a good time and place to have this discussion. Remember that a discussion about feelings and a problem in your relationship shouldn’t be a quick conversation. So don’t try to have this conversation right before one of you needs to leave for work or an appointment, or as you’re trying to bathe the kids or cook dinner.
Choose a quiet time in a private space with plenty of time to devote to having this discussion. And if you feel like your emotions are starting to overwhelm you, ask for a few minutes to calm down before continuing.
Use specific examples, words, and phrases
If you love your partner, hurting them is generally the last thing you want to do. Telling them there’s a problem in the relationship and that we have a negative feeling toward them or the problem may very well hurt them. The desire not to hurt them can sometimes make us be vague and unclear about what’s going on.
We’ll try to soften the blow by saying things like, “It kind of made me feel bad when…,” or “I don’t like it when you don’t consider my plans.” But by trying to soften the blow, we often make it difficult for our partner to even understand what we’re talking about, much less why they should be concerned.
Be intentional with what you say. Use specific examples of what you’re talking about. Say something like, “I was hurt when you made plans for us Thursday night without considering that I might have already had plans.” This reminds them of a specific instance you’re referring to, which may have slipped their mind. It also tells them how you really feel (hurt vs. just not liking it), and why (you might have already had plans).
You might even take some time before the discussion to write down some bullet points with the specific examples, words, and phrases you want to use so you don’t forget or get sidetracked once your partner starts responding.
Remember to use “I” statements
There’s a big difference in the response you’ll get when you say, “I was hurt when…” instead of “You hurt me when you…”
“You” statements will cause your partner to focus on themselves, preparing a defense for what they feel you’re accusing them of. They won’t really hear you and your concern because they’re busy thinking of how this isn’t their fault.
“I” statements put the focus on you and how you feel. It allows your partner to immediately be concerned about how you feel and how they can help. And this allows them to hear you and your concern and brings you together as a team to resolve the issue.
If you’re not used to using “I” statements, it can be helpful to sit down before you talk to your partner. Write down what you want to say and then rework it so that you’re using “I” statements. Bring your written “I” statements with you if you’re worried you’ll forget.
Dealing with conflict in your relationship may never be easy. But when you can approach it openly and honestly, it can be a lot easier.
Wendy Miller is a freelance relationship writer & meditation teacher. After years of settling for abusive and otherwise toxic relationships, she got fed up. Using meditation and other tools, she got to work on healing herself, setting boundaries, and only engaging in relationships (romantic and otherwise) that bring her joy. She wants to help other single parents find the love they seek, including and going beyond romantic love. She lives in Florida with her two sons, where she homeschools while solo parenting, while surrounded by what feels like a zooful of animals.
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