This is the first of a series of blog articles teaching you effective couples communication.
You know your partner. You’re a champ at predicting how they’re going to react to everything you say and do; for better or worse.
But, even though reactions are easy to predict, it doesn’t mean you actually know what’s true for your partner on a feeling level in that moment. You only know the reactive pattern.
We are all creatures of habit, and most of our reactions are knee-jerk and predictable. But, be careful – automatic reactions mask emotions. Let’s face it, sometimes it’s painful to feel what we feel.
In my years as a marriage counselor, I do a lot of “compassionate communication coaching” to help couples untangle the webs of assumptions they have about what their partners think and feel based on the automatic reactions they get.
Here’s a typical scenario:
Wife: I come home late from work rushing in the door. I know he’s pissed, as usual!
She goes on to explain: “He’s hungry. He thinks I’m a workaholic. My mom was one and his Dad was one and he gets angry with me because I remind him of his Dad who was never home.”
Whoa! She’s got it nailed, right?
As the compassionate communication coach in the room I say to the wife: “Ask him: ‘how were you feeling when I came in late yesterday?’”
Husband: “I wasn’t hungry at all. I was really feeling sad because we both have to work so hard and barely have any time to have a nice night. I wish I could make more money so you wouldn’t have to work so many hours!”
That’s right. When we assume we know what’s going on in our partner’s mind, gut and heart, we don’t ask.
When we don’t ask, we miss such important information and the opportunity to soothe and reconnect on the feeling level. This is the sweet spot where intimacy begins… and ends, if we’re not careful.
Compassionate Couples Communication – Lesson 1 – Hack your assumptions!
- Awareness of Assumptions:
Take a pause and name your assumption in your own mind:
“I’m assuming he/she is_________________________________.”
- Formulate a caring question owning your assumption:
“Can we stop for a minute. You seem annoyed. What’s really going on? Any thoughts or feelings you could share, because I may be making an assumption and don’t want to do that.”
- Listen closely to the answer and notice how you’re feeling in response.
- Respond compassionately to the feelings in yourself and your partner.
- Say: “Thank you for telling me! It’s helpful!”
Begin a new habit of taking a pause and asking “what’s actually happening inside of you” and open the door to intimacy – as opposed to patting yourself on the back for pattern recognition. That’s a primitive skill that even our dogs and cats are very good at. We loving humans have the power of language, so let’s use it.
Ask, don’t assume.
Lori Granger, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from California State University, Fresno. She has 11 years of experience working with and advocating with couples, adolescents and their families. Lori has created mindfulness groups supporting young adults, teens and adults. Her experience and training has focused on treating trauma, depression, anxiety, substance use, grief and loss, and life transitions.
Learn more about how couples therapy can improve your relationship.