Linda and Tim have been married for two years. Because her work requires frequent traveling, come the weekend, Linda just wants to relax. She prefers solitary activities like reading or running. Tim, however, really misses his wife during the week. So on the weekends, he wants them to go out.
Before long, Tim starts viewing Linda’s desire to be alone as rejection of their marriage. Linda starts viewing Tim’s behavior as dismissive of her needs.
Relationship expert Mudita Rastogi, Ph.D, shared this common scenario. It’s easy to misunderstand our partner’s priorities and perspectives, especially when we’re quicker to get upset and slower to communicate directly.
The problem is that “miscommunication feeds on itself. Once couples get caught in a negative cycle of communication, they find it hard to correct it,” said Rastogi, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Arlington Heights, Ill.
Fortunately, by making several adjustments to how you communicate, you can prevent and solve misunderstandings much more effectively.
1. Listen — genuinely.
Listening to your partner’s perspective is key, Rastogi said. It helps you make progress on your issues. “As hard as it is to hear someone disagree, or criticize your behavior, listening to someone expressing dissatisfaction can lead to problem-solving.”
2. Avoid having to be “right.”
Instead of trying to understand how a situation has affected their partner, couples are too busy formulating their rebuttal, according to Meredith Hansen, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist with a private practice for couples in Newport, Calif.
“Couples get stuck in this dynamic… both end up hurt and one or both withdraws.” Rather than getting trapped on the miscommunication merry-go-round, relinquish your need to be right. Again, focus on listening to your partner’s point of view.
“At the end of the day, what matters most is that each partner feels emotionally validated in the relationship, not that one or the other is right about the most recent argument.”
3. Focus on feelings.
Couples often hyper-focus on their thoughts during arguments, and ignore their own underlying feelings. Before you start arguing, pause, take a deep breath and figure out how you’re feeling, Hansen said.
Then share those feelings with your partner. But remember that feelings, such as “I feel sad” or “I feel disappointed” are different from thoughts, such as “I feel like you don’t care about me,” she said.
4. Take a break when conflict escalates.
According to Hansen, “When things begin to spin out of control, couples need to take an agreed-upon break and work on self-soothing during that time.”
For instance, this might be anything from taking a walk to practicing breathing exercises. The key is to “do something that will decrease the anger rather than increase it.”
Once you’re both calm, listen to each other’s feelings and focus on fixing your concerns, she said.
5. See your partner as an ally.
Remember that your partner isn’t the enemy, Hansen said. You’re a team. Just this change in perspective can help you better understand each other and work toward a solution for your problems.
Hansen gave this example: “We’re on the same side. How are we going to get through this? I want to feel heard and validated. You want to feel heard and validated. Let’s work together to resolve this issue and both get our needs met.”
6. Research relationships.
If you’d like to learn more about improving your relationship, Hansen recommended these books: 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman; Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller; and Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson.
7. See a therapist.
“Seeking couples therapy can really help with deconstructing the patterns of communication, and learn healthy ways to bond,” Rastogi said. Here’s help on finding a good couples therapist.
When two people — with different personalities from different families and backgrounds — get together, conflict is inevitable. However, healthy couples are able to move through conflict constructively. Remember you’re on the same team. Figure out your feelings, express them calmly and listen intently to your partner.