Home > Couples, Family Therapy > How to Communicate Effectively When You Are Upset

How to Communicate Effectively When You Are Upset

Couples often have difficulty communicating effectively with one another when there is a problem.   All too often, you get anger or defensiveness in response to telling your partner that you are unhappy with something that he/she is doing.  Rather than receive sympathy or an apology, you have to endure resentment, withdrawal, or combat.

So how can you be true to the intensity of your emotion but not start a fight with your partner?  Or, more importantly, how can you articulate to your partner what is really bothering you and increase the likelihood that he/she will WANT to make things better?

There are four steps to effective communication that can help you achieve this goal.  (These steps are also used in what is commonly known as “NVC” or non-violent communication.)  They are:

1) Make a Neutral Observation

2) Describe Your Vulnerable Feelings

3) Articulate Your Relationship Needs

4) Make a Specific Request

Making a Neutral Observation – Describe to your partner her annoying/infuriating/ outrageous behavior by making a neutral observation.  For instance, rather than stating accusingly:  “You’re late!”  say “You promised me that you would be home at 6:30 p.m. and it is now 9:15 p.m.”  or “You didn’t call me to say  you would be home two hours later than originally promised.”

Describing your partner’s frustrating behavior in a relatively non-judgmental fashion creates the foundation for her to hear your concerns non-defensively.  This also increases the chances that she will continue in the conversation with the desire to make you feel better.  There are some cultures (and relationships) where explosive interactions will not unravel the bonds of affection.  But more often than not, erupting with anger or unleashing criticism is likely to elicit defensive emotions and cause your partner to get angry in return or to withdraw (depending on your partner’s MO).  Think of this as simple cause and effect embedded in our DNA – unbridled anger or caustic criticism creates a “fight or flight” response.  The gentler the initial foray, the more gentle the reaction will be.

Describing Your Feelings –  Take a moment to figure out and then express your vulnerable (non-angry) emotions.  What is the fundamental need not being met by your partner and how do you feel about that?  For instance, beneath the anger in the example above there might be feelings of sadness (e.g., the missed opportunity of intimacy to have dinner together), lack of support (e.g., shouldering child rearing responsibilities by yourself), powerlessness (e.g., not being able to pursue your own plans because you are dependent on someone else who is unreliable), or abandonment (e.g., if this person cared about me, she would be on time).

To help you clarify your underlying emotions beneath the anger, try saying out loud the narrative running in your head about your partner’s behavior.  Our emotions are often dictated by our interpretations of others’ actions, so it can be helpful to figure out that story.  For instance: “You are coming home two hours late because you don’t want to spend time with me.  I feel really sad about that” or “When you don’t call me to tell me you’ll be late, I think it must be because you don’t value my time.  Wow, I feel really disrespected.”  Not only does sharing your story help you to gain emotional clarity, but it also allows your partner to correct an interpretation of her behavior that wasn’t commensurate with her intentions (e.g., “I really wanted to be here with you tonight and have time alone with you, but I got caught in gridlock traffic.  I didn’t call you because I was too worried about disappointing you.”)

Delving down to the vulnerable emotions can be difficult, particularly when your wound is fresh.  I tell couples I counsel that they need to hone their internal dialogue before they can improve the external communication.  In other words, if you want to increase the chances that your partner will remain productively engaged with you and your complaints, you need to try to plumb the depths of your emotions for the vulnerable feeling at the center of your maelstrom.  This means digging deep beneath your anger to understand why your partner’s behavior is triggering you so negatively.

Articulating Your Needs – State what you generally need or want from the relationship.  This helps contextualize your anger.  For instance, “I need to know that you respect my time” or “It is important to me that we have quality, alone time each week” or “I look forward to dinner with you every night.”

Your partner will definitely see that you are upset, but may not understand why you feel so strongly.  Articulating your needs begins to shift the focus from your disappointment (which is often difficult for the listener to contain – particularly when the disappointment is with him) to the common ground of where your partner can meet you.  By stating your needs, you are opening the door to rapprochement and a hopeful resolution to the argument because you are signaling “This is what I need and, if I can get it, I will be happy.”

Making a Request – State with specificity what it is that your partner can do right now in order to alleviate your intense emotions.  For instance, you might request an apology.  Or you might say “Let’s sit down now with our calendars and plan when we are going to have a night out together.”  Or even “I want you to tell me what time we can sit down tonight so I can tell you how upset this makes me.”  (This last request can be useful in a situation where your partner feels ambushed and needs time to collect herself.)

Making a specific request is a very important step in resolving conflict.  It is often difficult for your partner to hear that you are unhappy.  Even if you have successfully identified a vulnerable emotion, it is natural for the listener to interpret your unhappiness as “You are dissatisfied with me!”  And there is a natural tendency for the listener to be alarmed by the threat to the couple’s intimacy which obstructs her ability to be available and empathize with your pain.

The trick to effective communication when having a difficult conversation is to state your emotions clearly while concurrently opening the door to your partner for continued intimacy.  When there has been a fight, your partner often needs help seeing how to rebuild the bridge back across the chasm of your silence, pain, or anger. This is where the request comes in.  The request signifies to your partner the path to continued intimacy – a path of immediate action that will help ease your pain. Making the request is the blueprint for re-engagement.  It signifies the hope and possibility that you two can continue to be a couple and satisfy each other’s needs.

Categories: Couples, Family Therapy
  1. Azucena
    February 28, 2011 at 5:41 am

    It is so true what you say. Just looks easy on paper, but a lot harder to do. It is so much easier to get disappointed or angry so that you dont have to deal with the feelings deep down.

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