One of my favorite couples therapists, Dan Wile, taught me a simple way to help couples improve their communication and create more intimacy in their relationships. This is often a matter of just a few sentences.
At any time we can:
- Choose to fight with our partner and turn them into an enemy, or choose to
- Avoid them and turn them into a stranger, or choose to
- Confide in them and create intimacy.
The differences in these approaches are enormous.
- We can say something that will start a fight or we can get defensive. Either attacking our partner or defending ourselves from attack turns our partner into our enemy
- We can not say anything at all which leads us to avoid conflict, but it also turns our partner into someone who doesn’t know us very well and causes us to build resentment
- We can confide in our partner. We can tell them how we really feel (in a non-blaming way) and turn our partner into our confidante and support system
A few examples
Here are a few examples of each of these 3 communication styles based on examples I have heard from couples I work with in private practice.
If you want to turn your partner into an enemy you can scream “You are so lazy, you never help out around the house!” This will likely start a fight and your partner will likely either attack you back or become defensive. Or he/she may start cleaning the house, but he/she will build resentment along the way. This does not solve your problem.
If you want to turn your partner into a stranger you can just do all the housework yourself without mentioning that you would like some help (and build your own resentment).
Or you can take your partner into your confidence and say how you are really feeling such as, “I feel really taken advantage of when I get stuck doing all the housework. What I’d like is for you to take out the trash and help me dry the dishes.”
You are at a party and it seems to you that your partner is spending a good amount of time talking to his new secretary and ignoring you. You can turn your partner into your enemy by saying, “How could you ignore me like that all night and spend all your time talking to that cow? You need to fire her immediately!”
You can turn your partner into a stranger by saying nothing and ignoring him on the ride home, and every time he asks what’s wrong you can say, “Oh nothing, I’m just tired.”
Or you can turn your partner into your ally by saying something like “I felt really jealous tonight watching you talk to your secretary for so long. I suppose I felt a bit abandoned. I would have liked it more if you could have spent more time introducing me to your co-workers and hung out with me more tonight.”
Guys Night Out
If you want to turn your partner into your enemy you can say, “You never want to hang out with me, you just want to be with your friends all the time. Why don’t you marry them?”
If you want to turn your partner into a stranger, when he comes home from his guys’ night out you can say, “Hey, Dave Letterman’s on TV” or ignore him. Both are avoiding the issue.
Or if you want to take your partner into your confidence and open up an opportunity to possibly create intimacy you could say, “I probably should have said something earlier, but I feel like I haven’t had a lot of time with you lately, and I would have preferred if we could have hung out tonight. I guess I was hoping you would read my mind and just know that’s what I wanted, but I suppose that’s unrealistic. I miss you!”
How to start confiding in your partner
In order to have the confiding conversation we have to:
- be on good terms with our partner and trust that they will support us when we let down our guard and confide something that leaves us vulnerable
- we have to feel entitled to whatever it is we are feeling.
If we don’t feel entitled to have a hand with the cleaning around the house, or entitled to our momentary lapses of jealousy, then we will feel too ashamed to confide those feelings, and instead, we will usually choose the avoiding or attacking route.
Confiding can be a risk, and it’s often one that pays off. There is no real risk in attacking or avoiding each other.
Confiding often helps create intimacy with our partner. Our partner gets to see our softer side that we may often hide. When we are sad instead of angry, it’s easier for your partner to approach you and may make him/her able to reach out and soothe you. They probably don’t do that when you are lashing out at them. Also, if you are taking responsibility for your own feelings and do not automatically blame your partner for how you feel, then your partner is less likely to have to defend themselves or attack you back.
But remember, if you want a great relationship with your partner you get to choose. Are you going to start a fight, avoid the whole thing, or take your partner into your confidence? Whatever you choose, you are also choosing the corresponding action—turning your partner into your friend/ally, a stranger, or an enemy.
The key to a great relationship
The key to a great relationship is both partners trying to understand, respect and support each other. It is not helping either of you or your relationship to attack each other, get defensive, or avoid each other. To get intimacy with our partner, to be known by them, we need to tell them how we are feeling and what we think about things. We did all this when we were falling in love, but somehow, along the way, we stop sharing our thoughts and feelings.
It’s easy for our partner to tune us out when we yell, blame, criticize or don’t speak up. When we feel threatened we automatically go into fight or flight, so your partner has to decide to either attack you back or flee the situation. When this happens, neither of you get your needs met and it erodes the safety that is necessary in relationships.
Yelling “You’re lazy,” or “You want your secretary!” or “You care more about the guys than me,” is going to push your partner away, when want you really want is your partner to respect, understand and support you. But he/she probably can’t do that due to the approach you chose which is not respecting them, supporting them or understanding them.
You have choice
The good news in all of this is that you get to choose! So start practicing confiding in your partner and see how your relationship becomes a more safe and intimate place.
If you find this difficult to do on your own, don’t hesitate to seek couples counseling to help you have more of these confiding conversations and less attacking or avoidant ones.