Sometimes we get carried away while trying to communicate with our significant other, making criticism and accusations instead of using meaningful, loving words. We don’t intend to be critical or make accusations, but it just comes out that way. Perhaps we do not even know how our communication sounds to another person, because we are so caught up in our own emotional needs. This case is especially likely to happen when we feel hurt, angry, confused, or needy. Ironically, the times when we need reassurance may be the very occasions when we sound most prickly or unapproachable.
Why not see how it feels to state your needs and requests in a different way? I believe each one of us can keep the truth but remove the toxicity. Start with a positive word and then ease into a statement of disappointment or a request that may cause conflict. End by saying something positive. If you have ever been frustrated by an attempt to bring up something important with your partner, it’s worth a try.
Here’s an example. Remember the structure that we want to use. Begin with a positive statement, sandwich in the complaint, and end with a positive again. Try this out on yourself first before using it with a loved one. Think about a specific problem you have and see if you can instead view it as an opportunity. Think of a weakness you’ve always thought of yourself as having, then see if you can spin that weakness into an asset. Watch how your motivation and behavior change as you shift your thinking. Which sounds better? “You never exercise, and you eat all the wrong things” or “You have been making other people’s well-being a priority instead of your own health”? Which statement makes you feel better about yourself? Which one might be a more constructive stepping stone to change?
Here is an example of a conflict you may have with your spouse. You might want to say, “Do you have to leave the kitchen in total chaos every time you make dinner? By the time you are done, every single surface and every pot and pan is encrusted with food, and every possible ingredient has been yanked out of the cupboards. I really hate cleaning up after you!” This may be the simplest and shortest way to state your feelings about something that is really annoying you. But what is likely to happen after you let something so blunt fly out of your mouth? There will probably be a defensive reaction and an upsetting argument. Both of you may say things that you will later regret. Will the kitchen be cleaner, or will you be getting the silent treatment on your way to work, then eating take-out for dinner?
Here is an example of phrasing that conveys the same message, but in a gentler way. “Honey, I love the fact that you cook dinner. It is such a pleasure to eat a meal that I don’t have to cook. As you know, I really don’t love cooking. I appreciate you doing it so much. However, I wish you could be a little more organized and put things away as you are cooking so the kitchen is not a mess to clean up afterward. I just hate seeing all the pots, pans, and ingredients all over the counters for me to clean up. In spite of this, I prefer that you do the cooking because you do it well and always make such a delicious meal for us to share.”
Do you think this could change the emotional environment? It very well might. Here is another hint: Let’s say that you offer to follow behind your industrious, reliable, talented cook. Tell your spouse that you will do some washing up as he or she creates dinner, and perhaps put things away they don’t need anymore. You might find that cleanup is easier, and the two of you will get to spend more time together, bonding in the kitchen. Offering to change your own behavior can make it easier for your partner to consider changing.
For the next 30 days, try to see how many ideas, statements, and needs you can turn around, moving from automatic conflict to a more balanced negotiation. Notice how you feel and how everyone else feels who is around you. I believe one key factor here is, are you able to make your significant other feel loved and appreciated, even when you are asking for change? Let your partner know you would like things to be different but explain this hope in the context of affirming your romantic bond and your partner’s worth to you. Doing so changes the dynamic dramatically. A request feels less like a personal attack and more like a practical matter that need not be taken personally. Love is, after all, the most important thing in our lives. To feel that your partner’s love is at risk makes a conversation fraught with peril and pain. I believe we can deescalate and achieve constructive communication that is honest without being emotional sabotage. That’s an improvement all the way around!