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Healthy Communication for Couples

The key to a harmonious relationships is to express ourselves with clarity and honesty while also being aware of the deeper feelings and needs of our partner. Instead of defending and withdrawing when the communication feels difficult, we can learn to clarify what we need rather than judge another. The following is a reflections on Marshall B. Rosenberg's seminal work on Nonviolent Communication, adapted for couples who are having challenges with communication in relationship.

Alienating Forms of Communication "Most of us grew up speaking a language that encouraged us to label, compare, demand, and pronounce judgments rather than be aware of what we are feeling and needing."

~ Marshall B. Rosenberg Making Judgments - Often we evaluate our partner based on our personal values and emotional needs. When we focus on what is "wrong" with our partner, our attention is diverted away from looking at the truth of what we emotionally need - and are not asking for.

We tend to disguise our emotional needs in judgments. If one partner wants more affection she might judge her partner as cold or insensitive, for example. When we coerce our partner's to respond to our emotional needs through judging them, they will likely feel resentment and decreased self-esteem. Our partner will then respond to us out of fear, guilt, or shame instead of genuine willingness and love. Making Comparisons - If we want to make ourselves and our partner miserable we will compare our couplehood to other couples, or compare our partner to other people. Denial of Responsibility - The most common mistake couples make it to say to their partner, "You make me feel..." When we say "I feel this because...." we invite more honesty into our couplehood. Demanding - A demand implicitly communicates that there will be consequences or punishment if our partner fails to comply. As Rosenberg explains, "Alienating communication both stems from and supports hierarchical or domination societies, where large populations are controlled by a small number of individuals. It would be in the interest of kings, czars, nobles, and so forth that the masses be educated in a way that makes them slave-like in mentality." For a harmonious relationship, we do not want to rule over our partner! The Four Components of Good Communication 1.) Observations - The concrete actions that we observe that affect our well-being. 2.) Feelings - How we feel in relation to what we observe. 3.) Needs - The needs, values, desires etc. that create our emotions. 4.) Requests - The concrete actions we request in order to have our genuine needs met. We then express honesty through the four components and receive honestly through the four components. 1) Making Observations Without Evaluations We can observe and identify how the actions of our partner are affecting of our well-being without attacking or judging them. We can start to notice the specific behaviours that bother us. For example, instead of making an absolute judgment about our partner when they always pick up the tab for dinner by saying, "You are too generous." We can identify the behaviour and share what we think or feel. We can say, "When I see you paying for dinner all the time, I feel uncomfortable. 2) Identifying and Expressing Feelings We are trained from early on to be "other-directed" rather than to be in contact with our own feelings. We understand how to judge and label other people much better than we can clearly describe our emotional states. Once we observe our partner without evaluating them, the next step is to express what we are feeling. Most often we offer an opinion when asked how we feel - which is a thought - not a feeling. Difficulty identifying and expressing emotions is common. We are encultured to avoid expressing emotion. We can make efforts to increase feeling vocabulary and risk expressing vulnerability with our partner. We have to be careful when we use the words, "I feel..." however because we often use it to express, "I think..." which is a judgment. We can also make the mistake of sneaking in judgment about how others are behaving, "I feel ignored" speaks more to how our partner is behaving instead of saying, "I feel lonely." 3) The Needs at the Root of Feelings When we express our needs through evaluations and interpretations our partner is likely to hear criticism and become defensive. The more directly we can connect our feelings to what we need, the easier it is for our partner to respond to us compassionately. Most of do not even think in terms of our needs. We only think about how exactly our partner is wrong when our needs are not fulfilled. We can ask our partner, "What is it that you are needing? And what would you like to request from me in response to those needs?" It is important to let go the belief that we are responsible for the feelings of others. It is not up to us make our partner happy. We can very easily become emotionally enslaved in intimate relationships and our relationship can become a duty and an obligation. As soon as we realize that we have lived our relationship taking responsibility for our partner's feelings, we can become angry and when they express their feelings we might say, "That is your problem! I am not responsible for your feelings!" This is the awkward, obnoxious stage of communication where we need to learn how to be responsible to our partner without feeling emotionally enslaved. We might feel guilty for a while for having our own needs, but soon we will learn how to respond to the needs of our partner out of compassion instead of fear, guilt or shame. We can take responsibility for our intentions and actions in our part of our interactions. In relationship, we know that we can never meet our own needs at the expense of our partner. We can state our own needs and be equally concerned that our partner's needs are fulfilled. In summary, when learning to take emotional responsibility for our own needs we go through three stages: 1.) Emotional Slavery - believing we are responsible for the feelings of our partner. 2.) Obnoxious Stage - we refuse to admit to caring for our partner's feelings and needs. 3.) Emotional Liberation - we accept full responsibility for our own feelings and needs. We are not responsible for the feelings of others, but we compassionately consider them as equal to our own. 4.) Requesting That Which Would Enrich Your Life It is important to learn to express what we are requesting instead of what we are not requesting from our partner. "I do not want you to..." does not work as well as, "I would love it if you could..." It is easy to continue to think about what we do not want in a negative way. When we use positive language we can word our request in concrete action words that our partner can clearly understand. We can learn to be concise in our requests and ask our partner if they understand. The clearer we are about what we want the more we are likely to receive it from our partner. We can make it clear that we are requesting and not demanding by indicating that we are open to receiving what we want only if our partner is willing. We are not trying to get our way with our partner, but asking for a relationship based on mutual honesty and empathy so each person's genuine needs will be fulfilled.

Journal Reflection

What stage are you addressing your needs in your relationship? Are you believing you are responsible for your partner (emotional slavery)? Are you refusing to care for your partner's feelings or needs (obnoxious stage)? Or, are you accepting full responsibility for your own feelings and needs, and while you know you are not responsible for your partner's feelings, you consider them equal to your own (emotional liberation)?

With much care,


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