Relationship Communication: How often what was said, is not what the other heard!
By Becky Richardson, LPC
Early in my marriage years, my husband said “We need to do something about this yard.” I immediately heard “YOU haven’t done anything about this yard,” and got very defensive. I was busy with work and classes. I was angry assuming he expected me to do it. When I conveyed this, he replied “I said WE need to do something about this yard.”
Light Bulb Moment#1: how often what was said was not what the other heard.
Light Bulb Moment #2: how often had we taken it personal rather than get clarity. Once we heard clearly, we made a plan and got it done.
This is unlike how I grew up
I realized over the years I had grown up in a home with many rules, chores had to be done a certain way and consequences if they weren’t. As a result, I became an expert at justifying, defending myself and being sneaky. It didn’t seem I could do anything according to their expectations. The coping techniques I learned as a child served me then but not now trying to develop a relationship of my own. Learning how to discuss topics, explore differing opinions and creating a life together with someone was a challenge.
I was working with a couple once and the woman complained “You never talk with me.” The husband said quietly, “You always yell.” She replied a bit louder, “No, I don’t!” He said “See, you’re doing it now!” Of course, she said, “No, I’m not!” a bit louder still.
The wife had grown up in a big Italian family with six siblings, noisy family dinners, loud voices and people talking over each other. The norm was disagreements and energetic arguments. The family mode of operation was not personal. If you didn’t hold your ground then you lost your message. On the other hand, the husband grew up with one older sibling, a soft-spoken family with quiet conversations and intellectual discussions at their mealtimes. He didn’t hear rowdy discussions and in turn she made him feel tentative during discussions. He felt she didn’t care about him. To her, he was increasingly avoiding any kind of communication. She felt that he didn’t care about her. Each of them heard what they wanted. In his desire to avoid this familiar dialogue, the husband had gotten into the habit of stopping in for a drink or two before heading home until he was escaping to the club in much of his free time.
Learning successful communication tools is something that many of us don’t see modeled in our families. Based on our story, here are some good relationship communication tips to try:
- Express the Feeling– The wife should focus on how she feels and not take it personally. She can find out a good time to share and then express that feeling. Her empathy will give her a moment to consider his perception. Maybe he’s exhausted, ready to unwind, expecting a tense phone call, wanting to play with the kids or just in a bad mood.
- Find a Safe Relaxing Space – Many clients avoid heading up to bed at the same time for fear of an argument. The bedroom needs to be a relaxing, safe place for both. This couple could find an agreeable time and place to share their experience and feelings.
- Listen and Be Heard– In this instance she could open with, “I felt excited and cared for while at the restaurant the other night. Thank you, it was special. Dinner and your company were great!”. Later she can add, “I also felt left out when your friends came over and the rest of the evening turned to sports talk.” The husband can pause and clarify plus validate what he hears. “You liked going out with me. It was special and you felt cared for, but when my friends came over things changed for you. Is that right?”
- Validate and Then Offer a Resolution – “So if I was in your shoes and I was looking forward to have a nice night with you, but then you invited your friends over I would probably feel left out and angry too!” “Let’s split those nights up next time. Just time for us. Then just time for friends.”
When we began to adjust our perception, breathe before reacting, discover our feelings, and express them with guidance; this can be a rewarding journey.
If you are needing additional support for your relationship, please contact us at for an appointment with one our compassionate, supportive couple’s therapist.