It’s easy to assume that the reason you’re fighting may be due to a simple miscommunication. So what do you do? You spell it out, explaining exactly what you want and need and where it went wrong (i.e., I need you to stop spending money in that way). Still, sometimes the message can appear unreceived, which can be very frustrating for both parties and lead to more arguments where you continue to clobber each other over the head with loud, clear verbal demands. The more you say what’s not working and should change, the closer you are to fixing it, right? Not necessarily.
“People tend to believe that relationship problems are due to communication problems. And if you can improve your communication, you will do better at your relationship. But what people don’t understand is that your partner is hearing exactly what you’re saying. They just have no interest in hearing it anymore,” says Canadian family and relationship therapist Avrum Nadigel, author of the new book Learning to Commit. Harsh as that sounds, it’s important to understand before you end up going radio silent.
Related: How to Really, Really Listen
“When people stop communicating that’s because they’ve been trying to ram a message down their partner’s throat or ear that he/she is simply shutting down to. Counter-intuitively, the worst thing I can do as a therapist is to suggest to the partner who is shutting down, ‘You need to listen.’ They know full-well what’s being said. The communication they are sending back is, ‘I’m not interested in hearing it.’ So it’s not a matter of listening or empathy or finding better words,” Nadigel advises. “People get emotionally drained when they get to a point of silence or ignoring each other—and it has little to do with communication skills.”
In other words (surprise!), more communication is not the solution to miscommunication. Before you throw your hands up in defeat, hear Nadigel out. Below, he breaks down ways to improve your odds of getting (and feeling) heard and getting what you truly, deeply want.
Find out why you’re so focused on your partner.
“A lot of people walk into a relationship with the idea that if you love me, you will do as I say or give me what I’m asking for. It’s an immature understanding of what love is,” Nadigel says. If this sounds familiar, he suggests asking yourself this important question, ‘What if my partner can’t give me what I want?‘ If your first thought is ‘We need to break up,’ that’s fine if the relationship is new. But if you have invested two years of your life into this person or longer and now have kids and a mortgage, dropping everything may not be an option.
To this, Nadigel recommends to look within at what you’re lacking rather than what your partner isn’t giving you. “What is it that you need and want…and can you give it to yourself?” he asks. “People don’t believe that they can give to themselves what they have been asking their partner to give for the last five, 10, 15 years, whether it’s financial support, emotional support, whatever the case may be. We put so much pressure on the relationship to fulfill all of our needs and it’s impossible.”
Know the first rule in demanding respect.
Ever found yourself in public, such as the street or mall, screaming at a loved one? If yes, it’s time to take a step back and re-evaluate. “More often than not, I find that partners (as well as parents of teenagers) who say, ‘If you loved me, you’d respect me,’ may not be conducting themselves in a way that garners the respect they seek. It’s hard to get from others what you can’t give to yourself,” Nadigel says.
Determine if the problem stems from anxiety.
“If you’re the type of person who has trouble expressing yourself, your default mechanism might be withdrawal. And so withdrawal might be an anxious response to a partner who wants to speak,” Nadigel says. (Need to burn off stress? Try this feel-good workout!) Conversely, there are some people who deal with anxiety by constantly externalizing how they feel. It helps them calm down. “People who tend to externalize marry people who tend to internalize,” he says. “Two externalizers would never work because by the fourth date there would be no room for the other to go on and on. So we tend to meet people who are similar in terms of emotional maturity but handle emotions with opposite defense mechanisms. That’s why the extrovert usually marries the introvert,” he explains.
Take your pulse.
One way to gauge if a difficult conversation is going well is to check your heart rate, suggests Nadigel, taking a page from famous marriage therapist John Gottman, Ph.D.’s philosophy. “He’s done studies that show if your pulse reaches a certain number (between 85 to 90), you should stop talking because nothing is going to happen. Your biology is saying you’re shutting down and not listening anymore,” Nadigel says. At this point, he adds, it’s a good idea to walk away and lick your wounds, then come back with a fresh perspective.
By this point, you may have realized that talking isn’t solving much. In fact, it might be causing more strife. “To find out what’s the real issue at hand, you’ve got to get quiet, less anxious or worked up, and curious about how did ‘I’ get here. What’s ‘my’ part in this?’,” says Nadigel. “If people can focus more on themselves and how they contribute to the problem [rather than point fingers at their partner], then there’s some wiggle room to expand the repertoire of what you can do here.”
Curiosity is contagious.
The minute you stop focusing on the other person and start looking within for patterns in your own behavior that cultivate the exact environment you don’t want, your partner will start to look inward too and become curious. “Once you get people doing that now you can start talking,” says Nadigel. “To get there, you have to refocus the attention away from ‘if my partner doesn’t change, I have to leave this.’ This doesn’t usually happen in 10 minutes. It takes time to understand what you’ve inherited [from your family] over the last three or four generations and become a bit humble and open to the possibility that you picked a pretty good partner for who you are.”