Sunday, March 13, 2011

Being an Effective, Affectionate Communicator

By Joan Emerson, PhD
Originally published in Brooklyn Family

Guidelines for successful couples’ communication
When talking to your partner about something in the relationship that’s bothering you, you have to use the kind of communication that helps make things better, instead of just adding to resentment and alienation. Complaining, yelling, and blaming are certainly ways to let off steam, but they can leave your partner angry or hurt.

To be a better communicator, you need to recognize — and be willing to change — hurtful patterns. Unfortunately, it is a set of skills most people don’t have when starting a committed relationship. So, for most of us, it must be learned.

In order for these techniques to work, conditions must be right so that your partner can really take in what you are saying, instead of becoming defensive, angry or withdrawn. This requires great self-control on your part. You cannot even think about talking to your partner when you’re in the throes of hurt or anger. Instead, the talk must take place at a time when you know that your partner can be willing and relaxed and that you, yourself, will be able to maintain a neutral and gentle tone without blame, contempt or resentment. Therefore, you both must find a mutually agreeable time to say, “OK, I’m ready, let’s talk.”

As you sit down to talk, instead of asking the loaded question that sets a negative tone (“Why can’t you just…”), turn the conversation to what you are feeling, what you notice yourself thinking about, what you’re wishing for, what pains, hopes and fears you have, and your desire to return to a state in which you can feel relaxed and loving.

Preface the talk with “I want to talk about some of the things I’ve been having trouble dealing with. I’m not saying I know the answer, maybe it’s even crazy to feel this way, but I’d like to let you know what’s been going through my head. All I want you to do is listen, OK?” Once your partner agrees, say “thank you” and start sharing. It shouldn’t take more than 15 to 20 minutes to describe what you’re having trouble with.

To keep your partner fully engaged, your talk must stay gentle and safe. For the best results, you can sit together, perhaps touch, and look into each other’s eyes. You might say something like, “I notice that one of the things that would help me feel more relaxed, comforted, loving (you choose your feeling), is if you would … (fill in the blank). When you don’t do this, I see myself start to worry, feel angry, withdrawn (again, you choose). Then, I start acting in a way that drives us apart, and I don’t want this. Do you think we could try to come up with something that would work better for us?”

The conversation must stay focused on the present and how you both can find solutions that would calm and comfort you and allow your loving feelings to return. Care must be taken to avoid talking about past hurts or getting into a blame mode. If your partner gets defensive, things have gone off track, and you’ll need to redirect the conversation by saying, “I know that things haven’t been going right, but I just want to talk today about what we can do to make it work better. I’m sure that there are things that I could do differently to help you give me what I need. I’d like to hear about that, too.”

Usually, partners are more than happy to present their side and talk about what each person could do to fix the problem. If your partner doesn’t, make sure you take the opportunity to ask, “What would you need from me in order to make these changes?” This is a time to listen thoughtfully since there is, no doubt, something to be learned about yourself and some of your less than perfect behaviors. Acknowledging your responsibility to your partner helps him acknowledge his to you. In a talk like this, you’re in charge of keeping the tenor calm and hopeful.

Once you’ve tried some of these techniques and can actually feel deep understanding, mutual concern and even, at times, humor and good feelings emerging between you both, make sure you show great appreciation for your partner’s efforts. Tell your partner how helpful the talk was for you and ask how it was for him. Ask if it’s OK to talk this way in the future when issues come up. If your partner agrees, it is key to show appreciation, appreciation, appreciation.

Dr. Joan Emerson is a New York psychologist who specializes in couples therapy. Visit her website at

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