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From Communication to Love

Many couples come to me asking for help to improve their communication.  They do not trust that their partner really cares about their deepest needs and desires.  This seems in such contrast to their courtship, and the hopes and expectations they had about their partner’s ability to make them happy.  After a few years of being in the “real” relationship, they are often left with a profound sense of disappointment, sadness, resentment, and anger.   

Courtship can be misleading because each partner makes such supreme efforts to satisfy the other person.  We are in high gear trying to anticipate the other’s needs.  But when we feel safely “in” the relationship, we often let this hypervigilance about our partner’s happiness relax.  Being overwhelmed with work, domestic, and childcare responsibilities can exacerbate the problem. 

What is my best advice?

First, don’t fall prey to the fallacy: “If my partner really cared about me, he would know what I need without my even needing to tell him.”  This is simply untrue.  We all have our own idiosyncratic ways that we experience love.  One person needs physical affection, another wishes for verbal affirmation, a third desires gifts, and a fourth wants acts and gestures.  Partners (and this can be particularly true of men) often need guidance around how to best show that they care.  So give clear directions about what you need (particularly when you are experiencing difficult emotions like sadness or anger). 

Second, improve your communication style.  Many couples lack the ability to request what they need in a manner which will ensure a positive response from their partners.  They do not know how to communicate effectively. 

Why do so many couples struggle with this?

We were all born with the ability to convince others to take care of us.  It causes parents visceral distress to hear our children in pain.  So we will do our utmost to satisfy their needs.  That is why we scurry around trying to alleviate their hunger, fatigue, sickness, etc.  We want their distress to go away. 

But note the manner of that communication.  Babies simply cry, thereby exhibiting their pain.  And small children ask for what they need in a non-judgmental and direct way.  For instance, while an unhappy partner is likely to yell: “Where the hell is dinner!” a child will say: “I am hungry!”  The former will elicit a defensive response and the latter sympathy.  Or the neglected partner might recriminate angrily:  “You work all the time!” while the child who misses his parent will plead: “Mommy, let’s play together!”   The first is an accusation and the second a request for intimacy.  The child invites repair, while the adult threatens the relationship’s sense of security.  One elicits concern and attention, and the other provokes defensiveness and anger.  

If we, as adults, cannot effectively communicate about our needs, it is usually because this innate ability was squelched by unresponsive parents or society.  We received a new, unnatural education not to talk about our hardest emotions.  When we did not receive positive responses to our emotional communications, we learned to repress our needs, or aggressively assert them, or resent those who deny them.  

If we do not get the love we needed as a child, we lose the skill to ask for love effectively as an adult.  And the adult’s reaction to not getting their needs met can be very intimidating. Instead of crying, unhappy partners yell and get angry.  Instead of asking for what we want, unhappy partners withdraw and simmer with resentment.  Instead of pleading incessantly, unhappy partners criticize incessantly. 

So how to deal with the wounded child-now-adult who has lost the capacity to call out in a way that elicits a positive response from those closest to him?  

The answer is we need to recover our innate ability to communicate in a way that taps into our partner’s desire to reach out and help us.  But this trust needs to be rebuilt slowly between partners.  The relationship needs to rest upon a new foundation that can only be built by small gestures of responsivity and empathy.  The couple needs to live and believe in a new truth that: “If I hurt, I can reach out and I will be taken care of and loved.”

The mechanics of this new, communication skill set can be found in my blog “How to Communicate Effectively When You Are Upset” (February 2011).  Incorporate this rubric for effective communication (suggested in that blog) into your daily routines and lexicon.  But be prepared that the willingness to trust, to allow oneself to be vulnerable, and to risk making a request which, if unfulfilled, will cause pain, will take time.  So incorporate the skill set slowly.  Experiment with mundane issues.  Talk about minor annoyances.  Make requests where the risk of disappointment is minimal.  Share small desires.  And, most importantly, be willing to practice and to devote time to communicating in this new way.  It can rebuild the very fabric of your relationship.

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