In the past several months, I have been moved by my clients who are working on strengthening their relationships, particularly their adult relationships with their partners. Some complaints I often hear are: "He doesn't understand," "She doesn't listen," "I just want everything to go back to normal," "We used to be so close," and "I feel alone in this relationship."
Consider this a time to breathe some fresh air into your relationship. Much of what we find isn't working in a relationship can be worked on by strengthening our own attuning and assertiveness skills. Here are three areas of interpersonal communication I have been working on with my clients, addressing both the verbal and nonverbal.
Listen: I often meet with clients who do not feel listened to, and this makes it difficult for them to turn around and listen to their partner. Listening is not just about the words, but also about the emotional content, the nonverbal content, and noticing what is not being said. If a partner says "No, I don't want to go out tonight,” did you also hear the disappointment in their voice? Did you see the slouch in their posture? You need to not only hear what your partner is saying, but how they are saying it with their voice and their body language.
Hear and Respond: When you listen to your partner, respond to both what you heard from and saw in your partner. When you've understood that, clearly convey your own feelings: "You sound disappointed," or "You look disappointed" and give space for them to clarify if they feel they need to. If you feel the words, tone, emotion and body language are congruent, go aheadand respond by acknowledging and offering your point of view by responding, "Ok, I hear that you don't want to go out tonight. I would like to go out with you sometime this weekend, can we plan for another night?" Communicating your own needs is as vital as listening to your partner’s.
Give Feedback: Another complaint I often hear from clients is that their partner's message feels incongruent. An example of this would be if the partner says, "I don't want to go out tonight," but sounds and looks like they do want an outing. One way to address this is to let your partner know you are confused by their communication by saying, "I hear you say that you don't want to go out tonight but you sound disappointed." If the in-congruency continues, inform your partner what you are feeling, such as "I feel confused, you say you don't want to go out but you sound and look disappointed." Naming the behavior of the other person (words, body posture,emotional content) and how we feel (use of the word "I") lets you take ownership of your own feelings while pointing out the behavior, not a fault in the person. This allows a more neutral communication zone. Perhaps they don't know what they want themselves or something is going on for them that has nothing to do with the conversation at hand.
The running theme here is that these examples are about clarifying your own wants, needs, and position. It is a vulnerable place to tell another person how you truly feel and to be honest. Some relationship issues can be addressed by yourself and much of it starts with being clear and congruent with what you convey to the other person, communicating what you see, hear,and feel from another. At times it is helpful for both partners to be present in therapy together to work on these and other skills in real time with a supportive third party, the therapist. If you are working on your own skills but do not feel a healthy shift with your partner, it may be time for the two of you to work on your communication together. Letting your partner know that you'rehaving difficulty communicating is also an example of transparency. If you already both agree that things are difficult, see if you can discuss ways to address the problem in a collaborative way to share the responsibility.
These are just three of many skills crucial to a harmonious, healthy relationship. Intimacy, knowledge of your partner, stress management and basic life skills (such as work and money management) are also important. Strengthening the skills described here can be a good foundation for these other important aspects of partner relations.
The process of starting psychotherapy or counseling can be nerve-wracking and often carries stereotypes. The idea of needing another person's help (and a stranger at that!) can challenge our sense of independence. It can also be labeled as something that only “crazy” or “troubled” people do, or people with serious problems, whether that be with family, substances or mental illness.
The truth is, if you are contemplating therapy it is appropriate to thank yourself for your willingness to make healthy change. If it is even crossing your mind it means that you are willing to grow, which can be uncomfortable. Growth does not happen in isolation. Does a plant grow without soil or water? If you are contemplating therapy it also means that you are willing, even if with hesitation, to form a trusting relationship with another person, and bring this new person into your life. It also signifies that you are willing to help yourself, which in turn will aid you in helping others. When we strengthen our own skills and sense of self we are more available to those around us.
If you are contemplating therapy, ask yourself why this has come up. How do you think therapy can benefit you? Is it to gain clarity, learn skills? You may not know. Are there patterns in your life that you recognize as not serving you? Having difficulty in relationships? Cannot explain sadness or anxiety or simply experiencing a shift in your life that you are not happy with? The way through all these challenges are within you, and it is completely normal to need a witness and a guide along the way. The right therapist can be that supportive person.
Kimberly Schmidt Bevans
Kim is a body/mind therapist based in Brookline Massachusetts. She specializes in the use of the body-mind connection to address stress, anxiety, mood disorders, relationship issues, as well life transitions and creating change.
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