Exploring the myth that healthy relationships are free of conflict
I’ve been writing a lot lately about fairy tale myths and other lies that lead people to have unrealistic expectations in their relationships. The last lie I want to address is the myth that a healthy relationship is free of conflict. In other words, that Happily Ever After means you never fight. In my experience, the only romantic relationships that are free of conflict are the ones that don’t communicate their true feelings.
It is perfectly normal to have disagreements with your partner. The conflicts most couples have are based on blame, shame and guilt. Because most relationships are emotionally fused, each partner’s sense of self is fragile. You walk around on eggshells, afraid to upset your partner and be the target of his verbal barrage of arrows aimed at your fragile heart. Or you might be the one on the attack, shooting down your partner’s attempts at differentiating.
In order for conflicts to improve the relationship, they have to become less defensive. You have to be willing to show your vulnerability and be courageous enough to ask for what you want. I call this speaking authentically.
Communication is critical to growing and nurturing relationships of all kinds. When we talk about our feelings, we come from either love or fear. In other words, we communicate either authentically or from a place of feeling vulnerable and afraid. Communicating authentically will always improve a relationship, even when what we communicate is not something the other wants to hear. When someone is trying to differentiate themselves within their relationship, clear and authentic communication is a powerful tool to use.
Communicating from a place of vulnerability will rarely improve a relationship. The only time communicating from vulnerability helps is when you’re communicating from a place of authentic vulnerability, and that’s a difficult skill to learn. It takes being willing to be afraid, and openly talk about what you’re afraid of to your partner, who’s usually the person who sparks the fear in the first place. Therefore, it’s important to be able to discern where you’re coming from… ideally before you open your mouth to speak.
Some signs you are communicating from vulnerability and fear include snapping back a quick response, like a knee-jerk reaction, without thinking. You may be more concerned with getting your point across than listening to what the other person is saying. You feel attacked by what the other is saying, which is also a sign that your partner is speaking from fear as well. You may also say things to hurt the other person’s feelings or make them feel guilty for having their own point of view,
If you’d like to cultivate your ability to communicate authentically, I have some suggestions. It’s difficult to remember to speak authentically when you’re in the middle of an argument, so the more you practice when you’re not arguing, the better you’ll get. In most conflicts, very little listening takes place; they are little more than two people delivering monologues to each other. Changing this one dynamic can change everything. Here are some of my suggestions.
- Be present to what the other person is saying. That means listening to their words and their nonverbal communication. It means not formulating your response while they’re still talking.
- Pause before responding. Take a couple of seconds to notice how you feel about what they said, and to decide what you want to say.
- Be honest and kind. Thank them for their openness, and let them know how you felt about what they said. If you have something else to say, do so after acknowledging what they said first. If you’re too angry to be kind, at least be honest.
- Paraphrase what they’ve just said, and begin with “What I heard you just say is…” You should be able to do this if you’ve been present to what they’re saying.
- Check to see if you heard them correctly by saying something like, “Did I get that right?” If you didn’t get it right, ask them to clarify it for you.
- Validate their experience, even if you don’t understand it. This one is confusing for people. You’re not saying that they are right, you are saying, “Given how you see the situation, I can understand you would feel the way you do.”
When it’s time to state your position, try these techniques.
- Using “I” language; starting an argument with “You” will cause just about anyone to go on the defensive.
- State your feelings and own them. Instead of saying, “You make me feel…” try this: “I feel … when you do….” Remember, no one can make you feel anything. You are the one responsible for your feelings.
- Avoid the words “always” and “never.” Instead of saying “You never come home on time,” try this: “I feel …. when you come home late so often.”
- Don’t have a big BUT. A big but in the middle of what you’re saying will negate everything you’ve just said. For example, “I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t think you’re listening to me” get shortened in the other person’s mind to “I don’t think you’re listening to me.”
At first you may feel awkward and unnatural communicating in this way. With some practice, these techniques will become more natural. You may eventually find that the heated arguments disappear, replaced with honest, open discussions about how you are each feeling and responding to each other.