Chapter 1.Relationships: Conflicts


The Challenges of Communication

We can all – humblingly – imagine how true adults in a relationship would ideally communicate. They would understand their own moods clearly, speak with confidence but without anger or bitterness, always wait for an appropriate moment to make their case, have faith that they would be heard and so not rush or force the issue and never raise their voices or start to cry.

© Flickr.simpleinsomnia

Unfortunately, very little of this ever happens, for we are – most of us – only adults by chronological age rather than inner maturity. Instead of communicating directly and serenely, we tend to send out a variety of garbled, indirect, peculiar and very unhelpful signals about what’s truly going on for us: signals that end up confusing, enraging and often boring our partners. We make it immensely hard for them to understand us with sympathy – and yet at the same time, we profoundly resent their misunderstandings. This tragic loop is so undignified and painful that we’re tempted to assume it must be unique. And yet in the privacy of our homes, poor communication is the rule. We should try to understand the obstacles and look with sympathy and extreme compassion at how we could do better.

There are four big features of how our minds work that get in the way of sound communication:

1: We assume that others should know

There is no more common belief in love than that the other person should understand what we want, feel, desire and are cross about without us needing to tell them. We carry with us a powerful idea that we can and should be read wordlessly or, to put it at its starkest, magically.

2: We panic

We get so scared that we won’t be understood that we behave in ways that are guaranteed to confirm and exceed our worst fears. Rather than lay out our case calmly, terrified that we are wasting our life with someone who is committed to frustrating us, we lash out at the very worst moments (often late at night) and grow vindictive or self-pitying as we make our case.

We get bossy and controlling or perhaps silent and stern. At points, we immerse ourselves in our work or try to numb our pain with too much food or wine. What our partner witnesses is our outward behaviour, rather than than the underlying distress – and so assume that we’re simply fussy or busy, sullen or self-indulgent. We lose the audience we would so desperately need.

© Flickr.Britt-Knee

Being as honest and detailed as possible, two members of a couple should complete the following sentence:

– When I’m feeling anxious, I sometimes try to cope by …

This is a moment to give a partner a crucial guide to understanding us. We’re putting into words what we usually express only through misleading behaviour. We’re admitting to the troubles that underlie our more unfortunate and foolish actions.  

3: We seek attention in regrettable ways

We want our partner to turn their mind generously and sympathetically to what’s bothering us, but instead of quietly explaining, we employ indirect – and sometimes dramatic – strategies. Even an act as apparently dismissive as storming out of a room can be a plea for understanding (though delivered in away that is certain to fail).

Fill out of the following table together, each picking the entries that are most relevant to you:

When I … 1. What I really mean is … 2. What I really mean is …
Nag you ____________________ ____________________
Suddenly lose my temper ____________________ ____________________
Wear … ____________________ ____________________
Criticise you for … ____________________ ____________________
Have a very long bath… ____________________ ____________________
Flirt with someone else… ____________________ ____________________
Stay on my phone… ____________________ ____________________

4: We sulk

A sulk is one of the more peculiar varieties of indirect communication. We both refuse to say what is bothering us in a polite and kind way – and at the same time perversely hope that our partner will understand what’s wrong and be wholly kind and sympathetic to our cause.

When our partner asks what’s the matter, we say very gruffly ‘I’m fine, nothing’s wrong’ – but what we truly mean is: ‘you should already have understood what you’ve done wrong and what’s upsetting me. I’m hoping you’ll now notice and apologise with great kindness but I’m going to make sure you don’t so that I can prove how unkind you are.’ It sounds absurd – and it is.

– Try to recall a particular occasion of sulking and explain:

  1. a) Why you got upset
  2. b) What you felt
  3. c) Why it was so hard for you to say it directly

The origins of indirect communication almost always lie in childhood. When we were very young, we often didn’t have the capacity or context to understand and explain what was upsetting us, so we resorted to saying nothing, to hating silently, to having tantrums and to stamping our feet.

– What did you learn about communication from your parents? What did they do when they were upset? Were you helped to find the words? What role models did you have?

– What were you allowed to do with your upset and angry moods?

Ideally, when faced with a miscommunicating partner, we’d do our utmost to read between the lines. We’d understand that, at times, they wouldn’t be able to tell us (or felt too agitated to tell us) what was actually wrong and so would behave in ways that sent muddled, unkind, indirect messages about their inner state. We’d appreciate that behind their tantrums lay desperate and disorganized attempts to be lovingly understood.

© Flickr.Angie Chung

But when we were truly feeling a little stronger, we would both realise that the burden is ultimately on us both to learn to level our complaints in a way that is slightly more sober, serene and kind.

1. Sympathise with the difficulties of being mature (even if you are at an advanced age).

2. Pick a topic that often upsets and enrages you.

3. Practice laying out your case directly and maturely.

4. Reverse and repeat.

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