At the core of many communication difficulties is a simple antidote: respect.
After working on practical communication strategies with hundreds of couples, I’ve consistently found a theme among those who benefit from strategies and insights and those who don’t. It often boils down to one question: are they in therapy because they respect one another deeply, but have difficulty expressing it? Or are they in therapy because they’ve lost respect for one another and their communication has deteriorated as a result? In other words, does your partner direct their anger and frustration at the problem, or do they direct it at you?
One common issue is when couples confuse “calm” communication with “respectful” communication. They are not the same thing. People can say very hurtful and disrespectful comments while they are calm. They can also speak aggressively toward one another, yet deeply respect one another. The issue is when we attack the person instead of the problem. Here are a couple examples:
Calm, but not respectful (the person is the problem):
(Speaking calmly) “Honey, I don’t understand why you didn’t just stop and think before doing that? It just seems incredibly stupid that you ordered the curtains before you knew the size you needed. Now I have to spend my time and energy returning them when it was your mistake.”
Respectful, but not calm (the problem is the problem):
(Speaking loudly) “Ahhhh! These curtains have become a real pain in the ass! We should’ve just stuck with something simple and then it would’ve been done and over with and we could already be enjoying our new found privacy!”
Now, obviously the ideal is both a respectful AND calm conversation, but we’re human beings, we get frustrated, and speaking in a perfectly calm tone can be challenging. In those cases, it can be helpful to allow some time and space to calm down or practice some calming exercises.
Calm communication can be learned and practiced, but respectful communication must come from the heart.