How effective partnerships avoid common pitfalls
Communication is hard. We have this beautiful and sprawling language evolved through centuries of interaction—but it’s still entirely insufficient for expressing the complex web of thoughts, emotions, and experiences that make up human consciousness.
Every one of us is the result of uncountable tiny experiences that sculpt who we are; through years of listening, speaking, and feeling. Because of that, every string of words means something slightly different to each individual. Even when we choose all the right words to say what we mean...the recipient hears them somewhat differently.
If we’re not careful, that communication gap can widen catastrophically.
Silence & Storm: 2 types of dysfunctional communication
*Terms borrowed from Dr. Janice A. Spring’s After the Affair.
We are all imperfect communicators—and not only because language itself is imperfect.
We tend to talk about emotions in a linear fashion—I’m angry because I’m frustrated because you didn’t comfort me when I was sad—but emotions are more like a simmering stew on the stove, different ingredients rising and bubbling and subsiding along invisible convection currents.
Ever see what happens when you toss something into a simmering pot?
The storm response
For some people the obvious course of action during an argument is to boil over and vent explosively.
In sex therapy sessions, storm responders often explain their eruptive response in terms of getting things off their chest, or the danger of bottling things up. Or feeling the need to exert themselves loudly to make sure they’re heard.
Yelling and raging can be effective ways of getting attention—ask any toddler—but it can also deflect and divert focus from important fears and pain that need to be addressed. Unfortunately the nature of storms is to drive everyone inside behind closed doors—severing any hope of effective communication.
The silence response
At the opposite end of the bad-communication spectrum is the tendency to clam up. People who fall silent during difficult arguments often do so because they’re concerned about how their partner will react to what’s on their mind—or that revealing what’s bothering them will drive a deeper wedge.
Silence responders can seem calm and collected even when they’re seething below the surface with thoughts, feelings, and needs. The problem with such a response is that needs and concerns continue unaddressed...understanding and clarity remain elusive...and reconnecting with a partner is impossible without speaking.
Calming the storm communication technique
Through relationship therapy techniques, stormers can learn how to recognize their explosion coming on and call for a timeout. As agreed beforehand, their partner accepts the timeout—for a few minutes or a few hours, whatever’s needed—as long as everyone understands that the conversation will resume once calm is achieved.
Breaking the silence communication technique
Sex therapists help clients by providing structure for their communications and strategy for their timeline. Using a communication calendar like this one can help break the barrier of silence and provide direction for meaningful conversations with a romantic partner.
Schedule and structure can help form a foundation of positive communication habits.
Relationship communication styles are inherited—sometimes as opposites
Part of what a sex therapist helps to uncover is the relationship between behavior and experience...going back as far as childhood.
Human children start exploring their sexuality as early as 2 years old. From that point on, our sexuality grows with us—and so do our communication skills. Sexuality and communication are entwined at the core of our psyche—and bedroom problems usually stem from dysfunctional communication.
Children grow up watching parents communicate with each other, automatically learning and filing away precedents and models of behavior. Sometimes we mimic and sometimes we veer opposite.
For example, a person growing up with several noisy siblings might express themselves loudly and forcefully in order to be heard. Or someone growing up with parents screaming all the time might learn to clam up to avoid confrontation. Someone else might learn to respond with equal rage to avoid feeling steamrolled.
We are the sum of our experiences—informed entirely by our memories.
The trick is to reflect on where your communication modes came from—as well as how they’re being received. Self-discovery through context and empathy can open the doors to better communication and more satisfying interaction with significant others.
8 guidelines for effective communication
Sex therapists see all kinds of reasons why couples and romantic partnerships wind up at odds. Most of the time—whatever else is also happening—there’s a communication gap that leaves at least one person feeling unseen, unheard, and unimportant...which feels a lot like unloved.
Here are some things to keep in mind to improve relationship communication:
1. Give your partner 100% attention
Even if your mind is trying to run elsewhere, practice the physical signs of paying attention. Turn off the TV, turn your phone facedown or put it in another room on silent. Turn your body to face your partner and maintain eye contact to show you’re listening.
Be receptive and you might just discover something important or exciting about yourself and your relationship.
2. Listen without thinking about what to say next
We all want to drop those spitfire lines during arguments—but more often than not what really happens is you miss what your partner said and they feel unheard...and the conversation breaks down to trading verbal blows.
Practice paraphrasing what your partner says, to make sure you understand...and then formulate a thoughtful reply that speaks to their concern. This is communication—not scripted drama.
And before you go offering solutions, ask if they’re looking for advice or just attentive support.
3. Listen without interrupting
Give each other a chance to speak. Interrupting is an abusive behavior and can lead to feelings of repression and insecurity. During sex therapy, some clients practice not interrupting by actually holding a hand over their own mouth until their partner finishes a thought.
You can also try using a Covid mask.
On the flipside, a tense conversation is not the time for soliloquies or monologues. A more effective way to communicate deeper concepts is to write a letter and then discuss its points together.
4. Listen without defending yourself
Remember that whatever your partner is saying is based on their perception and experience. Even if it seems inaccurate, exaggerated, or purely combative—first accept their perspective and try to understand it. Picture your behavior from their point of view and think first about how you might be giving that impression.
One particularly effective sex therapy technique called “mirroring” helps couples understand each other’s viewpoint by asking questions and repeating the answers in a progression of question, answer, clarification/elaboration.
5. Avoid statements using always or never
Sweeping pronouncements tend to shut down a conversation. They signify inflexibility and unwillingness to view nuance. They speak of victimhood and entitlement rather than negotiation, creativity, and compromise.
Not to mention; always and never don’t actually exist—so feelings aside, you’re kind of undercutting yourself as an effective debater.
6. Unspoken expectations are premeditated resentments
Your partner is not—and never will be—a mind reader. Nor would you want them to be. Surprise and discovery are part of the fun of knowing someone!
Speak your mind clearly and express your needs plainly, without hedging or assuming. Set your partner up for success, not failure. Tell them what you need and what you expect, and give them the chance to outdo themselves. Otherwise they’ll bumble along not knowing your needs; and you’ll resent them for not meeting them.
Grow together or grow apart.
7. Support and encourage—never minimize
Just because something doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, doesn’t mean you should dismiss it. It’s hurtful and oppressive when something we’re feeling is minimized or brushed off by someone we care about. And if it’s purposeful—you’re getting into gaslighting territory.
People experience things in different ways. The key as always, is listen first and put yourself in their shoes. Don’t try to put them in yours.
8. Character attacks are for feeble debaters
Evolution sculpted us as cunning marauders, it’s true—we can’t help but look for chinks in our opponents’ armor and think up devastating attacks for crippling our foes.
But as intellect evolved we developed the unique ability to decide whether or not to act on those ancient imperatives. Rational discussion, strategic debate, thoughtful discourse...personal character attacks—meant solely to wound rather than advance the discussion—indicate weakness and persuasive deficiency.
And they often come from someone entrenched in a wrong or untenable position.
The attack instinct isn’t something we can eliminate—but we can choose how we react to it and whether we pull the trigger. Practicing mindfulness and effective communication techniques can help prevent those vicious instincts from ruining a good lover’s quarrel.
If you’re struggling to reconnect on your own, a sex therapist can provide the guidance you need.
Need some structure in your relationship communication?
Download my free sex therapy communication guide and start today!
Wordwork by Quillpower