Do you ever feel that your partner doesn’t listen to you? It seems that every time you bring up a sensitive topic, like disciplining the kids, money, or sharing household chores, your conversation quickly deteriorates into a big fight. Or sometimes you don’t fight, because…you guys don’t talk! If you say anything, he just nods and promises, “Yes honey,” just to shut you up. But of course nothing changes, and if you remind him, he accuses you of nagging.
There’s a way out of this mess. Here are tips on how to communicate in a way that will break through all that defensiveness and denial (your partner, and yours!)
1. Use the “I” language.
Sometimes it’s not what we say, but how we say it. Most of us lapse into language that can come across as critical: “You never help me with the housework,” or “You spoil the kids too much!” The other person then tries to justify what he does (“I’m busy with work! Who else will pay the bills?”) or then launches his own string of grievances. “Oh yeah? Well I would help you, if you didn’t complain so much about the way I do things! Nothing is ever good enough for you.”
It’s human nature to recoil from criticism. So, choose your words carefully, focusing instead on how you feel or what you need. For example, you can start the conversation by saying, “I’m very tired and I’d like to have a little ‘quiet time’ in the evening. You know how demanding the kids can be.” This way you make your partner feel that you need him (and everyone likes to feel needed) and that you’re both on the same side, looking for a solution.
Or, if you’re affected by his behavior—like the way he stays out late with his friends—you can use the formula of “emotion = behavior = effect.” For example “I get really sad that you spend all your Friday nights with your college buddies, because I get insecure that you prefer their company over mine.” Basically, this approach lets him see your things from your perspective, but you’re not attacking him personally. “This is just the way I feel.”
2. Be specific about what you want.
Instead of saying, “I wish you’d help me more around the house,” you are going to get a better reaction if you just spell out what you really want. “Can you cook dinner three times a week?” or “I’d like to have Saturday mornings free to spend time with my friends.”
Why? When you’re specific about your needs, your partner knows that you’re not attacking his character—you’re just asking for a particular action. “I wish you’d help me more around the house” insinuates that he’s lazy or indifferent. It’s tantamount to saying, “You never help me.” But spelling out your needs keeps the discussion objective and neutral. You skip all the drama and go straight to solving the problem together.
3. Don’t bring up the past.
Stick to the issue. If you’re bothered by a comment he made (“I was really hurt when you made fun of my cooking”) then by all means talk about it. Just don’t let the conversation include all the other things he already apologized for, years ago. A relationship shouldn’t be a score card of all the wrongs and rights committed throughout its history. Think about it this way: you probably made a couple of boo-boos yourself. How would you feel if he brought those up again and again?
4. Don’t monopolize the conversation.
It’s also important to stop and allow the other person to talk, share his feelings, or air his own hurts. You may feel that you’re the aggrieved party, and deep inside the only words you want to hear from his mouth are “I’m sorry” or “I’ll do what you want.” But that’s not how a conversation or even how a relationship works. There’s give and take, and there’s shared responsibility. No problem is completely one person’s fault. There may be ways that you contributed to a situation, and there are certainly ways that you can improve it.
Remember, it’s not about being “wrong or right.” It’s about making a situation better. Listening to each other, and admitting your own weaknesses and resolving to help each other, will always create a win-win situation.
5. Show appreciation for your partner.
You’ve probably heard parenting experts say that it’s not enough to scold your child when he does something wrong; you also have to praise your child when he does something right. The same thing goes for dealing with your partner. Try to acknowledge what he’s already done, or at least his sincerity in changing. At the very least, you can thank him for hearing you out, and for spending time talking about something that matters to you. “I feel so much better being able to open up to you like this. I really appreciate it.” Or “You’re a really good provider and I know you work hard to give us a good life. I just want a little time to rest so I have more energy to be a good wife and mother, too.”
After the conversation, single out and show gratitude for anything that shows a positive change. “Thank you for washing the dishes tonight, honey!” or “Wow, that was a really great dinner. Thanks for making it.” We often obsess over what our partner does wrong, and take for granted what he does right. Part of healthy communication is loving appreciation. When your partner realizes that you see his effort and listen to his needs, then the next time you say, “Can we talk?” he’ll be more open to it.