“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” Carl Jung
“He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened.” Lao Tzu
The importance of communication is one of the least disputed principles in most psychological models of long term relationships and marriages. The ability to talk and connect with one another on an ongoing basis, during the good and bad times, is the life force of a happy relationship. Even in relationships under strain, as long as there is communication there is hope, because once communications stops or is reduced to only very negative exchanges there is little room for reconciliation.
The building blocks of communication can be broken down into listening and speaking your own mind. Of these two skills listening is probably the most important and certainly the hardest to get right. Relationships expert, Stephen Covey argues that the mark of great communicators and leaders is that they always listen first, or as he puts it they ‘seek first to understand and then to be understood’.
When things are going well in a relationship we do not notice the importance of communication, it is during times of conflict that these skills are tested. It is when we encounter deep interpersonal differences and problems that communication and listening is most needed. While we might hope that our marriages and long term relationships might be trouble-free this is almost never the case.
In studies, marriage researcher John Gottman has found that couples, whether happy or not, all have ongoing problems which cause arguments and disputes. Further the problems they argue about at the beginning of the marriage are often the same problems they argue about ten years later!
Though many of these basic arguments between couples can be appear to be petty (such as different views on house cleaning) they can be major sources of ongoing conflict between the couple. At their heart, these conflicts represent deep enduring differences in personality or worldview or values. If not understood these differences can be acted out within frequent rows, criticism and sniping. Though they may start out with petty rows, over time these conflicts can escalate, deepen and become more frequent. Eventually they can erode the fabric of the relationship and even lead to separation.
The key to not letting these conflicts derail your relationship is the ability to step into your partners shoes and see the world as they see it or in simple terms to really listen and to understand the values and explanations that underpin the conflict.
Consider the apparently innocuous difference many couples have over punctuality. A wife might place a very high value on being early in contrast to the husband who likes to get there just in time ( with the risk of being late). If we listen deeper to the couple, the source of these differences is likely to have deeper roots. The wife hates the stress of rushing and the risk of being late causes her great anxiety. Further she likes be early because she equates lateness as rudeness and would never dream of being late for anyone she cared about. This comes from a value of preparedness and respect she learnt from her parents. On the other hand, the husband hates to be idle or to waste time. He equates waiting or being early as being wasteful, when he could have got another thing done and this can cause him anxiety. In contrast to his wife, he loves the ‘adrenaline rush’ of being in a rush especially when it is in the context of getting a lot done. This was a value he learnt from his mother about the importance of being busy and getting a lot done.
With all marriage conflicts, the problem is not the difference of views, it is the fact that we think our partner is ‘stupid’, hysterical’ or ‘unreasonable’ for the view they hold. We stop valuing our differences and instead see them as sources of irritation or even a deliberate personal attack on us. In his therapeutic work with couples, Gottman tries to help couples appreciate the ‘life dream’ that underpins the position of their partner. The aim is to help couples deeply listen so they can understand the positive explanations, values and intentions that underpin their views and behaviours.
Once couples understand their differences more positively then they can begin to accommodate each other or as Stephen Covey suggests search for a ‘win-win’ – a way that both of them can get what they need and want especially on matters of great importance to them both. This is where communication and especially listening really matters.
The Importance of Self Awareness
While listening and understanding our partners worldview is crucial in relationships such deep listening can only occur when we are self-aware of our own feelings, thoughts and values. We can only listen to others when we can also listen to ourselves. Or we can only ‘tune into’ our partner when we can first ‘tune into’ ourselves. Self-awareness in relationships forms the basis of listening and being empathic to our partner. Many people who are stuck in ongoing negative conflicts and disputes are caught into ‘reacting’. The may not be even aware what is going on for them and where their strong feelings are coming from.
The first step to change is to pause and to take a moment to understand what is going on for you first and foremost. You can think is this really an important issue for you? Where do these strong feelings come from?. In this space you create a distance from your emotions and you discover you have a choice in how you respond.
When working with couples I am constantly encouraging them to be mindful and self-aware of their emotions, rather than necessarily ruled by them. Ultimately, all relationships starts from yourself; your ability to relate to others is dependent on your ability to relate to yourself. There is great hope in this statement as it only takes one person to change to create a positive difference in a relationship.
Or put more simply, the best way to change others is to first change yourself.
LISTENING DURING CONFLICT
Tuning into your partner during conflict.
1. Think of a major ongoing conflict that occurs regularly between you and your partner. This exercise works best if you think of one where you find it hard to understand your partner’s point of view and where you feel they are behaving irrationally or unreasonably.
2. Take a moment to understand your own point of view and how you feel about the issue? ( It can help to write some of this down)
3. Now take a moment to ‘tune into’ your partner and how they feel about the situation. Try and step into their shoes and see the situation from their perspective. imagine what partner feels and thinks. If you find yourself coming up with a negative reason ( such they are just lazy) try and tune in a little deeper; What are positive explanations for their behaviour?, What positive goal underpins their feelings?
4. When you have come up with a few possible positive understandings write these down.
5. You can try doing this exercise together and then share your respective understandings checking whether you have understood your partner correctly
Tuning into yourself
1. Build a regular alone time in your life, when you have time to relax, think and reflect. This can be as simple as taking a daily walk or more formally creating a space to meditate.
2. During this time, regularly review the important things your life (such as your relationships) and the things that give you most satisfaction. Listen to and notice your deeper feelings and values.
3. It can help to write some of these thoughts down and to even keep a regular journal. You can also use the journal to make notes of simple plans you want to make around your relationships such as committing to special event that is
important to either you or your partner.