Is that how you REALLY feel?

When it comes to couples, a lot of people talk about "communication". Often we hear "A good relationship is all about communication" from advice givers or "We just didn't communicate" from recently broken hearts. Here's the thing: it's not that you communicate - because we all do, even when we're not speaking - it's how you communicate.

In love relationships, communication gets complicated. Because we've fallen intimately in love with someone, and they with us, we often expect them to know exactly what we need at all times. Why is it that we expect so much? I'm not completely sure why. Much of it has to do with attachment style, which dictates how we interact with others, but the rest seems to defy logic. Many times, we ask our partners to be superhumans - to behave in ways that are only agreeable to us and our wants and needs. If they don't, we get angry or upset and many times our partners have no idea why. Then they react, usually by either fighting back, going silent, or defending themselves in some other way. That's an all-too-familiar pattern that often brings couples to therapy.

Let's look at it a little closer with an example. I'll use wife and husband here to avoid confusion, but this could be any iteration of a love relationship: wife and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, husband and husband, etc.

A husband is patiently waiting for his wife to get home from work. He knows she gets home around 5:30. She has had a particularly stressful week, so he decides to make her a surprise dinner which will be ready right when she gets home. 5:30 rolls around... no wife. 5:45, he calls her cell and she doesn't answer. 6:00 and now he's really worried, pacing the floor, wondering if she got into an accident or worse. He calls several times and goes through all the horrible scenarios in his head, getting very anxious and concerned. At 6:30, his wife walks in the door looking perfectly fine. Before she can speak, her husband goes off, yelling about how inconsiderate she is, how the dinner is ruined, and how much she clearly does not care about him or his time. Instead of telling her husband about the long promotion conversation she had with her boss in the lobby and how her cell phone was dead, the wife says something like "You're being ridiculous! How was I supposed to know? You NEVER cook. I'm sure it was awful, anyway." and storms upstairs to the bedroom. Both partners are now pissed at each other over what is essentially "being late for dinner".

So, are these people communicating? They sure are, but they're communicating what Sue Johnson, one of the founders of emotionally focused therapy calls "secondary emotions".  These are the defensive emotions that come out of what is expected from your partner, but not the ones that started the process in the first place. In our example, the husband was scared about what could have happened to his wife and then hurt that she was fine, but did not tell him she would be late. The wife was then hurt that she was yelled at and accused of not loving her husband as soon as she walked in the door. She was probably also quite disappointed that she could not share her exciting news with her husband.  If this couple had communicated their primary emotions, they might have avoided an argument or could have at least had a more productive one. If the husband said something like "I'm so relieved to see you! I was so worried. Why didn't you call?" The wife likely would likely have immediately apologized and then shared her story.

I'm willing to bet this sounds familiar to you. I've done it and still do, although I tend to catch myself a lot more often nowadays. It's a hard cycle to break and we're human: sometimes we just go off without thinking about it. Here's a tip on how to become a bit more self-aware: when you're angry or upset with your partner, think about the situation - the interactional cycle - that caused you to feel this way. Are you hurt by something she said? Are you afraid he will leave you because of something he did? Do you feel lonely or unwanted? If so, try communicating that emotion instead of yelling, crying, or shutting your partner out. Or try to consider the situation for a moment: are you expecting your partner to read your mind? For example, are you upset because she is behaving in a way that she should know would hurt your feelings, even though she's trying to do something good? As I've said before, S L O W  D O W N, think before you react, and ask for what you REALLY need. State how you REALLY feel, before all those fight or flight mechanisms stepped in. If that's too much for you, take a step back, check the defensiveness rising in you, and see how you might soften your reaction. You may even determine that the anger is completely unnecessary and happily go on with your day! (Seriously, it's happened to me before). Now, this is not to say that anger or sadness are inappropriate emotions, but you'll be surprised at how productive a conversation can be when it starts out with a certain softness, with a statement of personal need or desire, instead of blaming, nagging, or walking away.