• Ashley Peterson, LPC

Valentine's Day - Couples Communication Tools by Waseem Amin

Valentine’s Day is coming up, so why not take a moment to strengthen your communication with your partner(s)? A lot of the time, I notice that the disagreements and arguments partners have all come from focusing on the “facts” of the conversation. The back-and-forth totally revolves around what “really happened”, what events took place, and whose account of the story is objectively “correct”. Say, for example, that a couple consists of one very neat, very organized partner (we’ll call them Alex) who likes for the household chores to get done as soon as they are created, and another partner (we’ll call them Jamie) who doesn’t necessarily prioritize a spotless house and cares more about doing what’s enjoyable in the moment then worrying about the chores later. Alex and Jamie cohabitate, and Alex asked Jamie to do the dishes before they piled up. That day, Jamie found themselves distracted by work and outings with friends, so they forgot about the dishes. The end of the day approaches, and Alex decides to confront Jamie about it. Their conversation goes something like this. Alex: *with an irritated tone* I noticed the dishes weren’t done again, and now they’re piling up in the sink. I can’t believe you. I asked you to help with one thing, and even that is somehow too much for you. Can you be an adult for once in your life and actually do your chores?? Jamie: You’re totally blowing this out of proportion. They’re not even really piling up! Just a couple of dishes that I was gonna get around to later. Why does every molehill turn into a mountain with you?! Alex: Because we can’t keep living in a pigsty like this! I keep asking you to do the dishes, and you never do. I’ve been trying to be patient with you, but you end up not helping and you get mad at me when I bring it up. You need to start cleaning up around here because this is honestly getting on my nerves. Jamie: That’s not even true, I did the dishes two nights ago! And you weren’t being patient at all! You didn’t say anything, but you shot me death glares every time you walked into the kitchen. Did you think I wouldn’t notice? How is that being patient?! Alex: Oh so I’m not allowed to have emotions now? I gotta tiptoe around you and the things you’re supposed to get done, even after I mentioned them a hundred times?! As you can see, this conversation is going nowhere. Alex started the conversation with an accusatory tone that Jamie picked up on very quickly, and both Alex and Jamie criticized one another’s characters. Jamie got defensive and, in that process, tried to prove their ‘innocence’ by focusing on what happened and what didn’t. They were both getting increasingly angry and annoyed with one another. The truth is that very little of this can be constructive for their relationship. Something as benign as the dishes going undone ended up having both partners at each other’s throats, with both partners feeling misunderstood, and the dishes issue never even got addressed. So what can they do instead? They can keep the dialogue focused on the emotions attached to the situation (both their own emotions and their partner’s) and express their needs around them. The format they can use is something like “I feel X when Y happens because Z” in which X is an emotion, Y is something that happened (not a remark about the partner), and Z is the significance of this event to the speaker. You might be thinking “this is so corny and impractical” or “how does that actually help solve the problem?”, so here’s an example of how that might work for this hypothetical couple. Alex: Hey Jamie, I noticed you didn’t get a chance to do the dishes yet. Jamie: Oh yeah, I completely forgot about that. I was out with Jamie and figured I’d do them later, but it slipped my mind when I got home I guess Alex: That’s okay, I figured something must have come up [validating partner’s experience and giving them the benefit of the doubt]. I just feel really frazzled and on edge [emotion] when things aren’t organized around here [something that happened] because it gets difficult for me to focus on anything else when things aren’t in place [significance]. Jamie: That does sound pretty stressful [validating partner’s emotions], sorry about that [taking accountability rather than getting defensive]. I’d hate for you to keep feeling that way [showing empathy], so what can I do better in the future? [giving space for partner to express needs] Alex: Thanks, I appreciate you asking [showing appreciation]. I just need our chores to get done more frequently so it doesn’t get as messy around here [expressing need]. It just brings me peace of mind you know? Jamie: Yeah, totally [validating emotions]. Alex: I know you sometimes forget about chores because you have a lot on your plate right now [acknowledging partner’s experiences], so maybe we can come up with a system to help you remember them. What if we put a magnetic whiteboard on the fridge with the schedules we set for doing our chores? That way, every time we walk into the kitchen we get a reminder of what we might need to do that day. Jamie: That could definitely help. It’s hard for me to remember things when they’re not right in front of me so a visual reminder would be great [explaining + expressing need]. Alex: I completely understand, and I think this might help me too honestly. Jamie: Okay, cool. I can pick up a whiteboard from a crafts store on my way back from work tomorrow, and we’ll sit down and talk about how we wanna divvy up the chores in the evening. How does that sound? Alex: Sounds great, thank you. The key differences here are that Alex and Jamie weren’t concerned with the accuracy of the events, they focused more on expressing and validating emotions, and they approached the situation with curiosity and empathy instead of accusations and criticism. With defensiveness and rebuttals out of the way, there was space in the conversation for them to brainstorm solutions and problem-solve with their partner’s needs in mind. Anger and irritation were avoided, and the interaction remained mostly positive while also being helpful for reaching common ground on the original problem. So next time you find yourself getting annoyed with something your partner did, try to take a step back, soothe yourself as needed before starting a conversation, then approach your partner with your emotions, your needs, and plenty of empathy for them and their experiences. See how that changes up the dynamic :)

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