Published in PsychologyToday.com on September 29, 2014 by Karen Kleiman, MSW, LCSW in This Isn’t What I Expected
It’s not always easy to be nice when we think we are right and our partner is wrong. When feelings are hurt or needs are not met in a relationship, people tend to express themselves more impulsively, without filtering what they say. Sometimes, we forget about how the other one feels when we think what we have to say is more important. And when powerful emotions, such as anger, enter the picture, they need to be gently introduced into a dialogue, which is paradoxical by definition and not easy to do. Otherwise, interactions stemming from hotheadedness, whining, defensiveness, bullying, or offensiveness, will quickly incapacitate any communication attempt.
Therapy is often the place where heated exchanges play out. From time to time, couples describe their negative interactions by retelling and ultimately, re-enacting an event from the week and sometimes, I find myself smack in the middle of the mudslinging. When that happens, after the insults begin, I begin to lose sight of the content and retreat into the process, observing from the sidelines. What are they doing? Why are they talking to each other this way? Why are they both engaging in this manner and perpetuating it? What is the secondary gain?
I do my best to conceal any reaction on my part; that is my job, certainly, to remain impartial and objective. I am certain, however, that there are times when my eyebrows hike upward in disbelief, or downward in furrowed disapproval. Why are you both being so unkind, I think to myself or, sometimes, say aloud? Isn’t there a better way to say what you are saying? In other words, can’t you say it in a way that will increase the likelihood that you will be heard and get what you want? And not alienate your partner, and estrange his or her sensibilities?
Problem solving is a process that is best achieved by the acceptance of a common goal and a kind heart. That does not exclude the expression of painful emotions. You can love someone and be very, very angry. Again, it’s the way you express it. It’s how you express it that matters. The success of your interactions is directly related to your awareness of these communication nuances.
I learned about non-verbal nuances when my daughter was about six years old and my husband was making her an omelet. He loved making breakfast for her. She would sit at the table with eyes wide open watching him spin from sink, to refrigerator, to stove, all the while, singing or making silly faces. In the meantime, I was busy with my own uneasiness relinquishing my mommy duties and kept strolling back and forth monitoring each phase of his omelet creation.
“That’s a lot of cheese you’re putting in there,”
My husband has always been good at not hearing me. He stayed focus on his task; chopping, cutting, singing.
“Seriously, she doesn’t like that much cheese,” I insisted.
I paced back and forth, finding all kinds of ridiculous reasons to supervise his handiwork.
“She doesn’t like green peppers.” I added, just in case he thought he knew what he was doing. “Take the green peppers out.” I whined.
And then, in a moment that would be forever branded in my brain, he shot me a look. It was a brilliant look. It was piercing. It was calculated. If looks had words, it would have said: Really? Are you for real? I know how to make an omelet. Go away. Leave us alone. Let me enjoy this. You’re getting on my nerves, leave the kitchen! None of those words were spoken of course. Nothing was said. Only his eyes spoke. Immediately, when I looked into his eyes, I heard the words that were not uttered.
Silly example? Sure. But it’s a true story and one that I have not forgotten as an important life lesson. Sometimes, our partners’ reactions serve as the best mirror we have at the moment. That was the moment I learned how to listen to what was not being said. I learned the role that common courtesy plays in a relationship and when to step back and let things be. I learned when to take a deep breath and, quite literally, leave the room if necessary. I realized how indispensable my husband’s happiness was to me and how easily I could get in the way, if I weren’t careful. I learned how important it is to accept responsibility for my part when making things worse and above all, when to say I’m sorry.
But more to the point here, I learned how successfully one could express one’s discontent with a single gaze. How two people can communicate effectively, sometimes without words, when they stop what they are doing or thinking and tune in to what the other is doing and thinking. It can be a moment of awakening for the marriage when you discover your ability to make that happen either as the initiator or the recipient. Learning to successfully convey and accept the expression of negative emotions is a vital element of your marriage and a skill worth perfecting.
Being nice to each other is more than good manners. It is a prerequisite for healthy connections. When you reach out on behalf of your partner, it obliges you to simultaneously look within yourself.
For example, do you:
• Say “thank you”?
• Say “please”?
• Say “I’m sorry”?
• Say “I miss you”?
• Look into your partner’s eyes and try to understand what is being expressed or not being expressed?
• Pay attention to the subtle hints your partner sends you whether they are positive or negative?
• Appreciate the small things your partner does or says?
These gracious phrases and gestures may seem too basic to even take notice, but if you are not already exercising this muscle in your marriage, it is never too late to start. Good marriages are more at ease with the mutual expression of respect. Sadly, some people are often more considerate of strangers than they are with the people closest to them.
A recent study suggests that saying “thank you” may be a direct and simple way to improve marital happiness. The cycle of appreciation and expressing gratitude out loud has been shown to be linked to more enduring satisfaction (Gordon, Impett, Kogan, Oveis, & Keltner, 2012). Many times, in a relationship, we wait for the other person to make us feel good, or repair a broken moment. Rather than passively expecting your partner to make things better, you can actively start focusing on what is good, and what you appreciate. This, in turn, makes your partner feel appreciated which encourages them to feel more appreciative of you.
Adapted from Tokens of Affection by Kleiman & Wenzel (Routledge, 2013)