I want to share what I have learned about men, women, and relationships in my time as a couples therapist. The way I look at my own relationship (with my now wife) after having trained at an accredited couple and family therapy program, is worlds different from how I understood my past relationships with previous girlfriends. As a relationship expert, I am excited to share some tips with you that you can start doing right now in your relationship.
Tip #1: Take responsibility
Actively look at yourself, and what you are (or are not) doing in the relationship. How are you nurturing your relationship? Do you take it for granted and assume it will be fine without putting any effort into it? When couples get into arguments both partners are actively playing a role in the conflict. Both partners are fighting to be understood and listened to.
- “What can I do?”
- Stop and think about your own role in the argument. What are you saying, (and almost always more importantly) how are you saying it? You play a critical role in the conflict. Take accountability for the things that you say, and how you say them, and realize that if your first priority is to be understood and listened to, you are going about this the wrong way. Your first priority needs to be listening and helping your partner to feel understood and reassured that you have heard what their message was – more on this in Tip #2. Then, and only then, after you have reflected your partner’s feelings back to them, and given them the validation that they were seeking in the first place, can you move on to the second priority, expressing your own thoughts and feelings.
Tip #2: Listen and reflect back your partner’s message before giving “air-time” to your own
This is one of the most common errors men make in all relationships, not just romantic ones. In patriarchal societies like the U.S., men are socialized that we have the power, we can be louder, stronger, and we’re not used to waiting – just look at the lines for the bathroom.
- “How do I do this?”
- No matter what your partner is saying to you, no matter how attacked you feel in the moment, you can choose to take control of the conversation by letting your partner finish, and summarizing what their message was. Ex: “That was really difficult for me to hear, but I did hear you. I heard you say that when I check my phone while we are supposed to be spending quality time together, you feel like I don’t care about you, or that I’m not interested in you. Is that right?” When our partners hear us give them validation for their message, when they receive reassurance that you are being 100% present with them in the moment, and they now feel that you have heard them, chances are they will begin to “down regulate” or become calmer. After you have reflected their feelings and their message, you can now express your own feelings in a respectful, calm, and genuine way.
Tip #3: Pay attention to the language being used
Taking responsibility for your role in the conflict, listening to understand and then reflecting back your partner’s feelings are important steps for any healthy relationship. This tip might be the hardest one to implement, because often in couple conflicts, our partner says something that we perceive to be an attack on our character and we go right into “defend-mode”. Things don’t work out too well when we are defensive.
- “What am I supposed to say then?”
- Let’s first identify the language that you should avoid using. Anything that would objectively be considered criticizing, such as,
“Why are you always so demanding?”
“Why can’t you remember anything I say?”
“You are incapable of trusting me, no matter what I do!”
Let’s look at how a therapist would guide you through reframing your message. A therapist would ask you what emotions or feelings are behind those statements. Let’s take a look.
1) “Why are you always so demanding?
2) “Why can’t you remember anything I say?”
3) “You are incapable of trusting me, no matter what I do!”
EMOTION(S) BEHIND IT
1) Frustration; Fear
2) Disappointment; Sadness; Fear
3) Anger; Sadness; Fear
1) “I get upset when I hear you say ______ because I feel like I’m not enough; And then after the fight is over, I start to worry that I’m not able to give you what you need.”
2) “I don’t feel important to you. I get nervous and even scared, because I jump to the conclusion that if you don’t remember, it must mean I don’t matter to you. And I know that’s not true, but it’s where my mind goes when we’re in the middle of fighting.”
3) “I get sad and scared all at once when I feel blamed for something. I’m afraid I’ll lose you because I don’t know how to earn back your trust.”
Tip #4: Pay attention to your tone of voice
There is a lot of misinformation out on the web about tone of voice, so be skeptical about what you read. Even internationally acclaimed relationship expert John Gottman cites one study on tone of voice that purports people only rely on about 7% verbal language, 38% tone of voice and speech patterns, and 55% facial expressions and body language when perceiving another person’s communication. What we can agree on is that tone of voice matters. You can say the same sentence over and over again, altering your tone of voice, and communicate a different message each time while using the same exact words.
- “If I change my tone of voice, aren’t I compromising the message I’m trying to send?”
- When we get into a fight with our partner, our tone of voice plays a big role in activating their emotional responses. The best way to fail at getting your message across is to accompany your language with a critical and disrespectful tone of voice. Your partner isn’t going to listen to what you have to say when they are feeling judged and attacked by your tone of voice. Instead, be an effective communicator by self-soothing your own emotions before speaking your first word. Provide your partner the safety of delivering your message with a respectful and calm tone of voice. While it may feel “forced” at first, it is certainly not inauthentic as you are still staying on message – because you’re utilizing tip #3 and minding your choice of words!
Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD, and specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His clinical specialties include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, therapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.