"Happily Ever After"... isn't that just a fairy tale? I mean really, how many couples do you know who have been together for 20-25 years who are still genuinely happy to be with each other? I know I didn't have any role models like that when I was growing up. All the couples I knew who'd been together a long time either fought all the time or didn't talk to each other much at all. "Happily Ever After" felt like an unreachable goal.
One of the reasons it felt unattainable was because I thought it meant you never argued. In my professional and personal experience, the only romantic relationships that are free of conflict are the ones that don’t communicate their true feelings. And now that I've been with my partner for 25 years and can honestly say that we are really, genuinely happy together, I can tell you that one of the secrets to our success is our ability to communicate authentically.
It is perfectly normal to have disagreements with your significant other. But in order for conflicts to improve the relationship, they have to become less defensive. You have to be willing to show your vulnerability and be courageous enough to ask for what you want. I call this speaking authentically.
Communicating from a place of vulnerability will rarely improve a relationship. The only time communicating from vulnerability helps is when you’re communicating from a place of authentic vulnerability, and that’s a difficult skill to learn. It takes being willing to be afraid, and openly talk about what you’re afraid of to your partner, who’s usually the person who sparks the fear in the first place. Therefore, it’s important to be able to discern where you’re coming from… ideally before you open your mouth to speak.
Some signs you are communicating from vulnerability and fear include snapping back a quick response, like a knee-jerk reaction, without thinking. You may be more concerned with getting your point across than listening to what the other person is saying. You feel attacked by what the other is saying, which is also a sign that your partner is speaking from fear as well. You may also say things to hurt the other person’s feelings or make them feel guilty for having their own point of view.
If you’d like to cultivate your ability to communicate authentically, I have some suggestions. It’s difficult to remember to speak authentically when you’re in the middle of an argument, so the more you practice when you’re not arguing, the better you’ll get. In most conflicts, very little listening takes place; they are little more than two people delivering monologues to each other. Changing this one dynamic can change everything. Here are some of my tips.
How to Communicate Authentically
1. Be present to what the other person is saying. That means listening to their words and their nonverbal communication. It means not formulating your response while they’re still talking.
2. Pause before responding. Take a couple of seconds to notice how you feel about what they said, and to decide what you want to say.
3. Be honest and kind. Thank them for their openness, and let them know how you felt about what they said. If you have something else to say, do so after acknowledging what they said first. If you’re too angry to be kind, at least be honest.
4. Paraphrase what they’ve just said. Begin with “What I heard you just say is…” You should be able to do this if you’ve been present to what they’re saying.
5. Check to see if you heard them correctly. Say something like, “Did I get that right?” If you didn’t get it right, ask them to clarify it for you.
6. Validate their experience, even if you don’t understand it. This one is confusing for people. You’re not saying that they are right, you are saying, “Given how you see the situation, I can understand you would feel the way you do.”
When it’s time to state your position, try these techniques:
1. Using “I” language. Starting an argument with “You” will cause just about anyone to go on the defensive.
2. State your feelings and own them. Instead of saying, “You make me feel…” try this: “I feel … when you do….” Remember, no one can make you feel anything. You are the one responsible for your feelings.
3. Avoid the words “always” and “never.” Instead of saying “You never come home on time,” try this: “I feel …. when you come home late so often.”
4. Don’t have a big BUT. A big but in the middle of what you’re saying will negate everything you’ve just said. For example, “I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t think you’re listening to me” get shortened in the other person’s mind to “I don’t think you’re listening to me.”
At first you may feel awkward and unnatural communicating in this way. With some practice, these techniques will become more natural. You may eventually find that the heated arguments disappear, replaced with honest, open discussions about how you are each feeling and responding to each other.
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Johanna Lyman is a published author, an internationally known speaker and teacher, and a Spiritual Love Coach. She is a certified life coach (CCUG) trained by CoachUniversity. Johanna combines personal experience and esoteric studies in a humorous, practical and accessible style that empowers her clients to live the fullest expression of their lives.