Many times couples ask me what the most important keys are for a good relationship. I believe that there are two essential skills to making a relationship work. These are complex skills involving refined communication techniques and they are absolutely necessary for romantic relationship. To master them, we must continually make the effort to learn about ourselves and to keep growing personally. The more we do that, the better we are able to use those skills.
1. Identifying how you feel and why and be able to express it.
Identifying how you feel is the first, essential step towards understanding oneself.
People sometimes ask me why feelings are so important. Many people don’t know how to recognize what they feel or don’t see the value in it. Feelings are absolutely important. Feelings are the energy behind everything that we do, and only by understanding our own feelings can we understand why we do the things that we do.
For example, if someone is violating something important to us, we get angry. This anger leads us to an action – pushing away or protecting ourselves. Or maybe we lose something important to us and we feel sad which leads us to take some space for ourselves and withdraw. Feelings lead to actions. They are the lights on the control switchboard of our life. If we don’t pay attention to those lights, then we are flying blind. We overreact, we hurt each other, or we pull away from each other – all without really understanding why.
Identify what you are feeling.
Out of the vast number of feelings we can have, there are a few basic ones that we all share, ever since we were babies:
•sadness, hurt, or distress
•frustration or anger
•fear or anxiety
•shame or guilt
•joy, happiness or pleasure
•surprise or curiosity
So the next time you are in a moment of distress, ask yourself – what am I feeling? Then try to identify one of these basic feelings listed above.
Once you know what you are feeling, the next step is to understand why.
We all carry our own unique beliefs and perspectives, which result in some very quick, automatic reactions. For instance, we see someone we know but they pass by without noticing us, and immediately we think “oh, she doesn’t care about me.” That perspective in turn causes us to feel hurt or angry and react in a specific way.
It’s important to identify the perspectives that come up automatically for us, because then we can investigate the present situation more deeply – is this really what’s happening or is this just my interpretation? A lot of the time when we get upset with our partner it’s because of things about which we are already sensitive. They say or do something, we interpret it in a certain way and then we react and get hurt. The more we are able to identify these filters through which we interpret things, the easier it will be to understand what is actually happening.
Once you have identified what you are feeling, and understand why you are feeling that way, the third step is to express this.
Sometimes we are aware of why things come up for us in relationship but we don’t share that. Our partner didn’t do the dishes when it was their turn and this makes us angry. We tell them “what kind of partner are you? You never do the dishes.” So we immediately focus on the other person and what they’re doing wrong, often blowing it out of proportion to the actual event. But the underlying reason why we feel and react as we do is, for example, that we see it through the perspective “he doesn’t care about me”. Having the ability to say both what you’re feeling and why can prevent the other person from feeling defensive about a situation, and more open to listening to your request. You say “when you do that, it feels to me like you don’t think of me as an equal partner. It seems like you don’t care enough about me to share the burden of these tasks with me.”
It can be scary at first to express ourselves in this way, because we are opening up to our partner in a way that makes us vulnerable. Just know that the effort to understand our own feelings and explain them to our partner will create an opening for much greater intimacy and growth.
2. Listening Non-defensively
It’s not always easy to listen to another person’s perspective, especially if they’re talking about an aspect of the relationship with which they’re unhappy or dissatisfied. It triggers powerful emotions in us. It’s very troubling for us to think that someone so important to us may have something critical to say.
But when we’re not open to listening, that’s when a conversation starts to escalate into an argument. To remain open to the other person’s perspective in this type of situation, we must remember that whatever they tell us has to do more with their perspective than with ours. Even if they are complaining about something you have done, they’re also telling you something about their experience that is really important for you to understand. For more information about that go to turning arguments into conversations.
Make a commitment to listen and to really try and understand their point of view.
Feelings always make sense if you understand the context from which they are coming. If you understand that your partner is sensitive to some things because of past relationships or childhood experiences, then what they are feeling makes more sense. The next time your partner wants to express how they are feeling about a situation, make the conscious decision to calm yourself so that you can listen to what they have to say. Wait for pauses when you can ask questions about their feelings, and continue in this way until you both feel you understand.
One way you can really help yourself to listen and understand is by learning how to center yourself in a moment of heightened emotions. Usually when we get hurt or angry, we close down and go into fight or flight mode. When you feel yourself growing agitated and upset, getting hooked emotionally and even physically getting hot, a very effective thing to do is to focus on your breath. Take a deep breath, and as you release it, feel the tension leave your body. Just doing that a few times lowers the level of aggravation to the point where you can once again remember that your partner is saying something important to you both.
Ask open-ended questions of your partner
Open-ended questions help our partner go deeper into their experience and their own understanding of the situation, so they also become less reactive and more reflective. These are questions such as: “How did it really make you feel?” or “What did I do that caused you to feel this way?”
Finally, empathize with your partner and reflect your understanding back to them.
Let your partner know that you get what they are feeling. Remember, it’s not that you’re agreeing with everything they have experienced. You are just demonstrating that you hear what they say and understand why they are saying it. You are showing them that you care about them by striving to understand them better.