Are criticism and complaints getting in the way of your relationship?
There are many things that go into creating a successful relationship but good communication skills are at the top of the list. It is the one topic that is addressed in nearly all of my marriage coaching or relationship coaching sessions regardless of the goal the couple has for coaching. Consider that communication is at the heart of everything we do with our romantic partner, from negotiating household responsibilities, planning a date night, or engaging in intimacy. The way we speak and listen to one another is the most important factor in a long healthy relationship. Communication that leads to problems in the relationship usually involves asking for what we want in a critical or complaining way, not asking for our needs to be met until we are very upset, or not asking at all while the problem creates distance and anger in the relationship. A healthy relationship requires all participants to get many of their emotional and physical needs met and I have developed a positive communication formula to help couples understand and practice asking for what they need in a way their partner can hear without becoming defensive.
Acknowledge Partner: Noticing what you partner is doing well, that they have tried, or their difficulties before you ask for what you want can help your partner feel understood and more receptive to what you need to say. Examples of acknowledgment might be, "I love that you spend time doing things the kids enjoy...", "I know that you have been really busy lately...", "I appreciate that you've been trying to make our family more of a priority...".
What You Want: The key to this part of the formula is to ask for what you want to happen rather than for what you don't want to stop happening. For instance, you might ask your spouse, "I really want the time we spend together to be focused on each other without distractions, can we turn off our phones during dinner?" Consider how it would feel to hear that request instead of, "I hate that you are on your phone all the time, I wish you would quit checking social media instead of talking to me."
Why Is It Important: Everyone has different ways of prioritizing all the things that need to get done every day and of balancing their needs versus their partners, children's, and others. Telling your partner why something is important you will help them to better understand what you need and consider how much of a priority it is in their list of responsibilities or when it conflicts with their wants. For example, it is a big deal for me to have dirty dishes in the sink and on the counter, especially when I am trying to make dinner, but it doesn't bother my partner so he is unlikely to make it a priority if I don't ask him to and let him know why it matters to me.
Additional Information: This part is optional but if there are specifics, such as the time you need something done by or there are particulars to the task the other person might not know about, then including that in your request makes it more likely you will get exactly what you need. If we return to my request for my husband to help keep the dishes done I would probably want to specify that they get done before it is time to make dinner otherwise he might decide to wait and do them in the morning or before going to bed. While this would get the task I asked for completed it wouldn't actually get me what I really want, which is a clear workspace.
Positive, respectful communication can be difficult when we are angry, hurt, or have difficulty seeing our partners point of view. It might seem silly to make simple requests using the positive communication formula but it will help you practice your skills so that you will be more successful when trying to communicate when stressed or upset.
Positive Communication is using loving and respectful language without criticizing, blaming, putting down, or shutting out your partner. This includes not only the words that you use but also your tone of voice and body language. Positive communication also involves listening carefully to what you partner says without interrupting and without making assumptions about their thoughts or motives. Many relationship problems begin with incorrect assumptions! It is important to remember that you cannot read your partner's mind and they can't read yours either. If your partner says something that is upsetting to you it is important that you consider why you’re upset and then communicate this. Many times when I practice this with couples in session the statement that upset one partner is often a misunderstanding of what was communicated or a faulty assumption about what was intended by the communication.
Assumption Example: Spouse #1, “I guess we can have kids someday but I’m not ready to be tied down yet.” Spouse #2 is ready to have children and could assume this statement means that spouse #1 doesn’t really want to have kids. Rather than accepting the assumption as true Spouse #2 could ask for clarification, “When you say ‘someday’ what does that actually mean? Having kids is really important to me and I want us to be on the same page.” It is easy to see how assumptions can lead to many relationship problems that could have been avoided or addressed early in the relationship.
Loving Request vs. Criticism Example: Spouse #1 is frustrated that the trash never gets taken out and finally blows up, “You obviously don’t care about me at all, you never help out!” Although the goal of this is getting your partner to do something differently it is only going to lead to an argument, more upset feelings, and no positive changes in behavior! Now imagine if Spouse #1 didn’t wait until emotions boiled over and made a request, “I know that you are busy too but it would mean so much to me if you could make sure the trash gets taken out when it is full because it is hard to throw anything else away and it makes the house smell bad.”
Consider a recent argument you had with your partner:
What was the argument about? What did you want and how did you communicate that to your partner? How could you rephrase what you want into a loving request that lets your partner know how much it would mean to you? Imagine if someone said your request to you, would you feel criticized?
Finally: Practice, practice, and practice some more. This sounds really simple but it can be incredibly hard to change our communication habits, especially when the topic includes a lot of emotion. Practice using the positive communication formula on easy things that you are not strongly emotional about.
Wishing you the best,