Recently, we were doing some work with a couple who were struggling in their relationship. They had been together for twelve years and had two children. It seemed that they fought about everything – about raising their children, about sex, about finances, and about where and when to go on holidays. The woman complained that her husband was too lenient and blamed him for their teenage daughter spending time with “the wrong crowd.” She felt he was too aggressive in sex, did not share with her about their financial situation and always wanted to vacation where he could play golf. The man complained that she did not really listen to her children, that she never initiated sex, she was irresponsible with money and she wanted to go to boring places on holiday.
Given that scenario, one would ask naturally wonder why they were still together. But strangely enough, they still loved each other and had much in common. The problem was that they could not communicate. They could not listen to each other. Whenever they tried to talk about things, they invariably would end up yelling at each other and one of them would either storm away or hang up the phone in frustration. But there is every possibility that these two can learn to talk and listen to each other. What was missing are some simple tools.
Communication, in essence, is two people exchanging information with each other. We have communicated when afterwards, we know more about the other person – more about his or her feelings, thoughts, perspective and inner world. Problems arise when we are so emotional and fearful of not being heard or taken in that we can no longer listen to each other and we no longer express ourselves in a way that helps the other person to understand. We may have become so hurt and resentful, that we are not communicating, we are venting. And we are not listening either. But both may think they are communicating.
To communicate, one person needs to be expressing himself or herself in a way that helps the other person to listen. On the other hand, the person who is listening needs to listen. We can’t do that if we are preoccupied with defending ourselves, getting the last word and being right. (We often say in our work that we can have love or be right but we can’t have both.) So when we are the listener, it is important to check if we are able to take in and feel what the other person is saying.
In order to sustain a deep and meaningful intimacy, we have to learn to communicate. And to do that, we need to try to express ourselves in a way that does not provoke defensively in the other person and we need to do our best to be open to listen. But there are some important understandings and insights that are pre-requisites for being able to communicate.
1. Emotions don’t express themselves in a way that helps the other person to hear us. They often wish to attack, blame or punish the other person and provoke defensiveness, hurt and resentment. Also, emotions don’t listen well. They motivate us to defend and prove that we are right. In order to communicate, we need to understand when we are taken over by our emotions and expressing or listening from that space. We need to understand the difference between when we are expressing ourselves like an emotional child and when we have some centeredness and composure. It is not that we are wrong or bad for venting, but it is important to understand that the emotional child in us does not communicate, she or he vents.
2. In an intimate relationship, we naturally project our unmet childhood needs on our partner and become upset when they are not met. However, our partner is not responsible to meet these needs. Until we become aware of our projections, we will contaminate our efforts to communicate in a mature way with childish expectations. For intimacy to work, we can discover what and when we consciously or unconsciously project on our partner and own it back.
3. In an intimate relationship, we naturally project on our partner our sensitivities of being disrespected. When this sensitivity is triggered, we react automatically, habitually and unconsciously. Again, when we are not aware of our sensitivities based on our childhood history of invasions, we will overreact when these sensitivities are provoked. This also will contaminate our ability to communicate in a mature way.
4. It is important for any two people in a relationship to understand why conflict arises. Often, we can distinguish between two different situations that cause conflict. One is when we feel that we are not getting the presence, attention, love, appreciation and support or caring that we expect. We call this, “deprivation”. When we feel deprived, we can become highly emotional and reactive because it uncovers a fear that we will never get what we need. But in these moments, our healing movement is to learn to contain our frustration, pain and fear and find nourishment in ways that do not involve the other person. That does not mean we cannot express our hurt, but not if it carries expectation. The other situation we often encounter that provokes conflict involves situations in which we feel disrespected or invaded by the other person. In these cases, our healing movement is to express our hurt and learn to set a limit. Learning to make this distinction helps immensely for healthy communication.
We will react emotionally in a similar way in either of these situations. Therefore, it is not easy to tell them apart. Two examples might make this distinction more clear. A couple that we worked with built resentment with each other because of both of these two different situations were occuring. The man felt hurt and upset because during the day, while at work, she continually called him on his cell phone, interrupting him and expecting attention. She even became angry when he was unavailable to reach or if he turned off his cell phone during a meeting. This is a clear case of deprivation and her healing movement to learn to contain her fear. From his side, it was important for him to express directly to her that he felt invaded by her calling and demanding his attention and lovingly say ask her to respect his time when he is working.
In the other situation, she complained that he criticized and judged her for the kind of friends she had and in general treated her like a little girl. It was hard for her to tell him directly that she felt this as an invasion when he belittled her and had opinions about her friends. But that was precisely her healing movement in these times. For his side, it was important for him to recognize that his treatment of her was invasive and disrespectful.
These four understanding and insights come to us through committed individual inner work. Often, when we enter a love relationship, or any intimate relationship for that matter, we are not aware how we unconsciously invade the other person. And we are not aware how we expect to get our needs met from the other person. (Or we may think that “love” means that our partner should meet those needs.) The deeper the relationship goes, the more our wounds open and the more likely it becomes that we will get disturbed and become emotional. In our experience, deep and committed individual work on understanding how our wounds may sabotage our love relationships is absolutely essential for love to flower. That is why these four insights are prerequisites to flowing communication.
With these four insights in mind, we can present some specific tools to communicate consciously that we have found greatly helpful in our own relationship as well as with those we work with.
The purpose of conscious communication is to deepen the love and the connection between you. It is not to attack, punish, berate or prove to the other person that you are right.
Step 1. Become aware when you feel hurt, angry, and/or resentful or if your heart has closed to the other person. If you are pulling away from the other person, don’t let it pass, pretending that it doesn’t matter because the distance will only get bigger. Make a decision to communicate.
Step 2. If you feel hurt, angry or resentful, take some time to be with yourself. Time will often soften the charge. Feel that your connection with this person is important for you. Go inside and feel if you have been invasive or disrespectful in some way. Take some time to feel your hurt and see if you can put this hurt into words.
Step 3. Now, go to the other person and say that there is something important that you would like to express. Ash him or her if he or she has the space to listen. If not, ask him or her to tell you when would be a good time because it is important. If there is no willingness to communicate at all, seek help from a professional or friend. It is not okay not to make the effort to communicate because the relationship eventually will die.
Step 4. If there is a willingness to communicate, take ten minutes (precisely) to express yourself. You can begin by saying, “I felt hurt or upset when you…”(and be precise.) Make an effort to talk about your feelings from your heart without blaming, attacking or analyzing the other person. During those ten minutes, the other person simply listens. At any time, if you as the listener like it is too much, you can say, “Wait, I just need some time to take this in.”
Step 5. Once you have expressed your hurt, the listener, you can say from your heart, “I hear you and I understand.” Resist the temptation to defend yourself.
Step 6. Now the listener, you can take ten minutes to express yourself, following the same guidelines of the person who expressed himself or herself initially.
Step 7. The new listener, you respond by saying from your heart, “I hear you and I understand.”
It is not in our nature to live in conflict or in resentment. But when we don’t make a continual effort to stay connected and to communicate in a mature way as we have described, it is natural that hurt and distance grows. By following these simple steps, you are allowing the heart to take over again, the love to flow again and the relationship to keep deepening as it is meant to do.