From the outside looking in, relationships seem pretty straightforward. Once you couple up, you have a built-in person to watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine with and wrap your arms around at night. But the hard truth is that relationships take work. Any relationship therapist will tell you that approximately 90 percent of having a successful, healthy relationship is about communication.
So what happens if you never learned how to effectively communicate, especially when it comes to telling your partner how you feel (about them, about your shitty day at work, about the way you feel when they make googly eyes at that one celebrity with the rock-hard abs…)?
Generally what happens when you can’t or won’t communicate properly is a bunch of blow-out fights. “Most [cisgender] men don’t understand the importance of validating their significant others’ emotions, and therefore arguments can become very heated very quickly,” says Monte Drenner, LHMC, a licensed counselor and therapist with MTC Counseling in Florida. And a big fight typically means your communication skills suffer even more, because who’s really good at talking out their feelings when they’re seething mad?
Learning how to communicate is key if you want to avoid those big fights, or if you want to patch up a recent argument. Of course, changing the way you interact with your partner isn’t going to be easy, and it’ll take some time. But these seven steps will get you started.
Embrace the awkward.
Most people (men especially) haven’t learned how to talk about their feelings directly and honestly, so that makes trying to communicate a little awkward and clunky at first. It’s not intuitive to us to ask someone if we can kiss them, for example. But recent conversations about consent have made it clear that direct communication (literally saying “Can I kiss you?”) is the best form of communication. That holds up for any kind of conversation, whether you’re asking for consent, explaining why you’re in a sour mood, or feeling insecure about your relationship and trying to explain why. Although she recognizes that it’s clunky, sex therapist Rosara Torrisi, PhD, suggests using Marshall Rosenberg’s Non Violent Communication method. “It encourages everyone to have better vocabulary about their needs, emotions, and values,” she says. You can watch videos explaining Rosenberg’s method on on YouTube. But whether you decide to try his approach, to use the classic “I feel” statements (focusing on how you feel, rather than projecting how you feel onto your partner), or to try something else, recognize that it’s going to feel weird at first. And that’s okay.
When in doubt, over-communicate.
If you’re not sure how much you should be sharing, start with the assumption that you should share everything. “Most of the men who I work with tend to withhold rather than indulge, and communicate telepathically rather than expressly,” says marriage and family therapist Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D. “For these reasons I encourage them to say the very things they feel don’t need to be said and over-explain their experiences and feelings.”
If the moment is charged, take a step back.
Anger and communication don’t mix. Think back to the times you’ve hurt your partner — you were probably angry when it happened. “When we’re fighting with our partners, we’re being ruled by the most base and primitive part of our central nervous system,” Hokemeyer says. So rather than trying to fix the problem, we tend to say whatever we know will make our partners feel terrible. “It’s a very destructive dynamic,” he says.
In order to avoid this damaging spiral, he suggests taking a step back from the intensity of the fight. Walk away and give both yourself and your partner time to cool down. It’s okay to say, “I’m not in a good place to talk about this right now. I’m going to take a walk and clear my head.” Ideally, you take at least 30 minutes away from the fight to let your heart rate rest, your mind to calm down, and to think of a better way to express yourself, Torrisi says.
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If your partner really won’t allow you to walk away, Hokemeyer suggests counting to 50 two times in your head before responding. “The point is to allow reason to intervene in the situation and to move your reactions from those of your primitive brain to the more elevated part of your brain that provides you with an intelligent strategy to resolve the conflict,” he says.
Don’t try to fix everything.
One of the biggest mistakes men tend to make in communication is trying to fix a problem that might not even exist, Drenner says. “Many times, their significant other is merely sharing a struggle or venting about something,” he says. “They’re not really looking for a solution.” When you give them a solution instead of a shoulder to lean on or an attentive ear, they might be disappointed because what they wanted was to be heard, not fixed. “A good rule to live by is don’t attempt to fix something unless specifically asked to do so,” Drenner says.
Don’t just speak. Listen.
When couples argue, it’s often because one or both people haven’t tried to hear their partner out. You may be so focused on proving your own point, that you’re not really listening to your partner’s. Even if you don’t agree with what your partner is saying, it’s important to listen and actively try to understand their perspective. “Work harder to understand than to be understood,” Drenner says. “It’s hard to argue with someone who’s trying to understand your point of view.” And if you truly believe you’re in the right, you’ll be able to make more effective counter-arguments if you’re listening to their points.
Let yourself be vulnerable.
“Men have been acculturated to think rather than feel,” Hokemeyer says. Because young boys are told both consciously and subconsciously that they’re weak for showing emotion, men tend to struggle with being vulnerable. But if you really want to be good at communicating with your partner, you’ll need to learn how to share your feelings. “Communication, especially communication in the realm of intimate relationships, requires a level of vulnerability that often invokes uncomfortable and out of control feelings,” Hokemeyer says.
In fact, being able to talk rationally and honestly about your feelings is more attractive than coming off as an emotionless automaton. “Women view emotional vulnerability as a strength,” Drenner says. So while it’s scary to let someone see your vulnerability, it’s also essential for a healthy and lasting relationship.
Ask for help.
The great thing about learning to communicate while in a relationship is that you’re not alone. Maybe your partner is already a master communicator, or maybe they’re learning, too. Either way, they should be open to helping you, even if that just means being patient while you figure it out. “Men can ask their partners to be patient and help hold them accountable while they struggle to improve their communication skills, rather than criticize and shame them for their stumbles and imperfections,” Hokemeyer says. Learning to communicate more directly, honestly, and emotionally is a process, and part of it is acknowledging that you’re not going to be perfect right away. That doesn’t give you permission to stop trying, but it does afford you some leeway from your partner as you work through it.
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