Communication is the basis of all our relationships and interactions with other humans. When we are born, our only form of communication is crying, a nonspecific means of trying to meet our needs. As we develop language, we are more able to assert our needs and wants. This comes not only from the words we learn but also the nonverbal communication we add to the language, how we say or present information, and ourselves. We learn a lot about how to communicate from the people around us, our parents, teachers, friends, and family. We are taught specifics of language like grammar and manners but not specifically about how to communicate effectively. This is more trial and error and will work differently with the different people we encounter.
Many things will impact our ability to communicate effectively. For example, if we are in a group or one-to-one, the gender and age of the people we are talking to, how safe we feel with these people, if we have anxiety or depression, chronic pain, sensory differences, self-esteem issues, power imbalances, cultural differences.
One of the key places we need to learn to communicate effectively is with our partner(s). We all come into our adult relationships with a learned pattern of communicating, and this may not serve us the best. We all have a way of viewing the world that we assume everyone shares until we are confronted with evidence that there are other ways to view situations. It is worth reflecting upon whether we know what we need, how we ask for what we need, how we listen, and how we deal with conflict. Reflect on how your family communicates. Do you remember seeing your parents deal with conflict? Was this done effectively? How are you seen in your family? Are you the quiet one, the “good” one, etc, and how has this image of yourself impacted your communication? Even if we feel we are communicating effectively, there is always room to learn so that we can develop our most intimate relationships.
One place to start learning could be the difference between passive-aggressive and assertive communication. Does our style of communication change when we are under pressure or with different people? Think about whether you deal with things immediately or store them up, which can lead to feeling resentful. Do you need time to reflect before you can discuss something, or do you need to address it straight away? Does your partner feel the same way?
Take the time to read about “Love languages” (link in resources) because understanding that there are five different ways, we can express caring to others is useful information. Working out what your language is can be interesting but seeing if your partner shares a love language or has a different one can be really helpful. If your love languages differ, then any messages of caring may not be received as they were intended, and you or your partner may feel unseen or unappreciated. It may take a little effort to begin with to remember how your partner appreciates receiving love, but the benefits are going too far outweigh this. There are many other personality and communication “tests” that you can find online that may help explain why you and your partner tackle situations and communicate about them differently. Maybe a fun date night could be completing some of these over dinner.
Think about the time you chose to bring up conversations that are important. Is your partner best placed to deal with a big conversation now? Try asking, “Is now a good time for us to discuss something important? Do you have the capacity to listen to me right now?”
Be clear on what you need from the conversation, do you need someone to listen or to help or give advice. Stating this from the beginning will give clarity to what you are asking for.
It is useful to take an “Us against a problem” rather than a “me against you” strategy so that it becomes less personal and more collaborative. Separate behaviours from the person doing them, not liking a behaviour is very different to not liking the person. Keep the comments from your perspective not generalisations and explain the impacts on yourself. For example, “When this happens, this is how I feel”. The aim is to improve the situation for both parties.
Sometimes we must give up control of aspects of life when we are in a partnership. It is useful to remember we may have different ways of doing things and different timeframes that they may happen within. If this is causing you distress, it is time for a conversation. Remember not to become a martyr in this situation by doing the tasks yourself, simply explain how you are feeling. This helps you both to clarify how and when things will be done and to decide what priority they are.
Communication is an ongoing and evolving part of all relationships. It will not always be perfect, but practice will certainly help. We can all improve our skills.
If you feel like there is an imbalance of power within your relationship and you are not being listened to or heard or your needs are dismissed, then this is a serious issue. If you are experiencing continuous conflict or are noticing themes recurring that are not resolved, it may be time to involve someone else in your communication such as a counsellor or psychologist.
Further information and Resources:
Lifeline- 13 11 14