By Joelle McKiernan
As Valentine’s Day comes closer, let’s turn our attention to relationships. Research shows that connection is vital to our overall wellbeing. Positive, healthy connections to others help us feel secure, confident, and ready to take on the world. John Bowlby, a pioneer theorist, proposed that intimate connection to another person is rooted in our evolution. In prehistoric times, those that were alone were less safe and ended up as prey.
However, those that had someone who cared for them, often lived to pass on offspring. The foundation of how we connect to a primary caregiver is laid in early childhood (birth to 3 years) but research shows that it also carries on the entire lifespan and into our current relationships. In fact, numerous studies show that once we have intimately attached to another, not only can our partner change our mood and self-confidence but also can regulate our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and even our hormone levels. This is our human biology at work.
What is a challenge that faces our connection to our intimate partner? Communication is in the top three reasons that couples separate and divorce. However, many believe that a healthy relationship is conflict-free. Not true. In fact, conflict and disagreement is a normal part of a healthy relationship. The couple’s ability to resolve the conflict, through listening, compromising, and a willingness to be open to see another’s point of view, can build a stronger connection. A safe connection trusts that even when we disagree, we can come to a solution. Let’s review some communication strategies that can help guide your conversations.
Before you begin a discussion that you think might start an argument, ask yourself what is that you are feeling upset about? Are you truly angry that your partner is working too much or is it that you feel like you are dealing with the children and life alone? Take some time to think about your feelings before starting your discussion and look for underlying causes that may not be your partner’s fault.
Tackle one issue and have one person talking at a time while the other is listening. If one person is talking and the other is thinking about what to say, that is not listening. If you are concerned you will not have a chance to talk, then set a timer. Each person gets a minute or two and then the other gets the same time.
When you feel your pulse rate rising, take a break. Degrading language and yelling usually means you have gone too far, and you need a break. Degrading language includes put-downs, swearing, or name-calling. Either person can call for a break but make sure it is for a specified period that you state. The key is to resume the conversation when both of you are calmer and not to leave it unresolved. An issue left unresolved usually festers and will come up again at the next conflict and can muddy the conversation.
No stonewalling. Stonewalling is refusing to speak and shutting down without any communication. If you need time to regroup, then ask for a break but just clamming up is a strategy that often escalates and allows conflicts to fester. Remember your partner can’t read your mind.
When you are sharing your feelings with your partner, use “I “statements. Try not to start a sentence with “you”. For example, “you don’t…, you always…, you should…” etc.… Even if you don’t mean it, it can feel like an attack and the other person becomes defensive. Instead, try and own your feelings and interpretations with the behaviour that is troubling you. Instead of “you are working too much” say “I am concerned about your time away from the family or I feel lonely when you are at work, or I feel like I am competing with your work and I am losing”.
Another word that can raise people’s defenses is “why”; Why are you late? Why did you do this or that?” Why questions can be taken as judgments and provoke people to justify themselves instead of listening and communicating what is going on for them. This is not only true with adults; children can respond defensively and often aren’t able to articulate why they did something. You can still ask question, just don’t start with why.
Finally, the goal of communicating is to come to an understanding and then a compromise. This is not an easy thing because relationships challenge us with other ways of thinking and seeing the world. Life is often too messy for a perfect solution. You will rarely get 100% of what you want. Compromise is both sides giving a little to come to an understanding or plan that both can live with.
Whether you do anything on Valentine’s day or not, your relationship is a work in progress. It can take time to make a connection that works for both people. However, the rewards are well worth the time and effort to your overall health.