We communicate with our partner or partners in various ways, both verbal and non-verbal. While we can only understand each other to the extent that we communicate openly, sincerely, and directly, our communication may not always follow healthy patterns. There are many issues that may arise that impact our relationship but are not inherently unique to it. Experiencing a stressful event, financial problems, health issues, or just feeling overwhelmed may change the way we experience our relationship, but they don’t necessarily damage it. Sharing our thoughts and feelings about the challenges we’re facing as partners, in other words: being in touch with each other, supports our well being and that of the relationship as well. When we’re open with one another, we can become more sensitive to each other’s needs and respond with flexibility and inclusivity when miscommunication does occur.
If, however, our communication is continuously strained or influenced by chronic or intense stress, it could result in less responsiveness and flexibility. This is, of course, quite common because none of us is capable of being thoughtful and empathetic all of the time. The important thing here is not to avoid conflict. Basically, we need to know that our relationship can overcome disputes and that we are in a place where we can express all of our emotions. Otherwise, we may give up trying to express how we feel, thinking we’re not going to be heard anyway, or we may take a more defensive attitude. This can point to a problem that is inherent in our relationship.
At this point, we may spiral into an endless cycle of hurtful miscommunication unless we figure out a way to break out of it. We may feel so trapped because we continually find ourselves in this deadlock over and over again every time we try to express ourselves. This can bring up feelings of desperation and distress, of ‘not being understood’ yet again. Sometimes, the burden of past experiences makes itself known in this present interaction and certain communication barriers can remain intact even as issues change over time.
We can try and understand which barriers are at work for us by paying close attention to our own needs and the needs of our partner or partners. This way, we can prevent these patterns from getting between us.
Sometimes, we may tend to think and feel on behalf of our partner instead of listening to what they have to say. We may feel like it’s impossible to understand what our partner is going through no matter how hard we try, or, maybe we think we know all about our partner and our relationship in general, that we can almost predict what’s happening. The thing is, these thoughts are rooted in assumptions, that we know what our partner is experiencing as though we can read their mind.
Whatever the challenge is, that idea that we can read our partner’s mind is an obstacle to healthy communication. Assuming we have an idea about what our partner thinks can mean we have given up wondering or trying to understand in the first place. Our present moment holds opportunities for newness and change both big and small. That said, assuming we know the minds of others can hinder our ability to notice the possibilities before us, even if such assumptions are based on information from past experiences. Reacting to past experiences as though they were our present reality can keep us from a deeper understanding of what’s going on in our relationship. In other words, our chance to create and imagine newness in our relationship diminishes.
Therefore, we should not give up on expressing ourselves openly and making space for our partner to do so as well so that we can understand them. Defining our partners’ experiences on their behalf may cause them to be more reluctant to express themselves, or they may react defensively. Knowledge from the past is definitely crucial in order for us to adapt our responses for today’s circumstances, but making assumptions solely based on this knowledge will only repeat those cycles that drive us into hopelessness.
Stress triggers our response to perceived threats, activating specific mechanisms which enable us to protect ourselves. In other words, we go into defense mode, which can manifest most when we are arguing with our partner or partners. We may try our best to describe our own experience, while still struggling to prove we’re right. In doing this, in centering the need to be right, we may make matters worse instead of better. Oftentimes in these moments, we may find ourselves using language like “you are always,” or, “you did this,” which can sometimes be read as accusatory.
Our partner or partners can best listen to us if they do not feel threatened or under attack. If we expect our partner or partners to understand our experience, we should start by speaking based on our own. For example, instead of, “You’re always late,” we can say, “I get worried when you’re late or when you don’t answer my call. It just makes me feel insignificant when you keep doing the same thing even after we’ve discussed it before,” to make it clear what made us uncomfortable and why. This way, our communication becomes clearer and we can navigate conflict with openness and transparency.
Just like those sentences starting with “You are,” these utterances can also cause a breakdown in communication and create barriers between us. This kind of absolute and fixed language forces us and our partner into an inescapable vicious cycle: It has “always” been this way, and will continue to be this way.
However, we can invite hope into our relationships as we remember the positive times. To find a way out of this spiral of doom, we should again take notice of those small changes that matter, of the things that are different, and of the possibility that things could turn out better than expected.
When we use finite language like, “all the time, never, again…” it is, for the most part, born of intense feelings like exhaustion, distress, or despair. We can allow ourselves to experience these feelings by expressing them more directly and without shying away from sharing them with our partner.
Sometimes we give up expressing ourselves and we build invisible walls around us, especially in stressful moments, to keep our distance. This is actually a coping mechanism we use when we’re experiencing difficulty communicating our emotions and needs. Nevertheless, this pattern will only strengthen those barriers between us and our partner, causing the same problems to resurface again and again if we don’t find ways to address them.
If we notice ourselves drawing inward and erecting walls when faced with a challenge, we can try to take a closer look at the underlying feelings and thoughts causing us to act this way. Believing that we will not be understood, convincing ourselves that problems are not to be overcome, becoming paralyzed with fear in stressful moments, and having difficulty in staying with challenging emotions are among the potential reasons for this reflex to occur.
This coping strategy can keep our problems at bay for a while, but it also increases the possibility of facing the same challenges again in a different context, while making us appear unapproachable in the eyes of our partner or partners.
We all use this distancing strategy from time to time without knowing it, so we need to make sure it doesn’t become a permanent fixture in our coping repertoire. Yet, even if that’s the case, we need to grasp the significance of this pattern in our own narrative. Then, we can try and experiment with different practices and seek out more resources that can best support us.
Translator : Elçin Dönmez