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How Can I Set the Stage to Bring Healthy Communication into my Relationship? Part 1

By: Samantha Marszalec, LSW

How Can I Set the Stage to Bring Healthy Communication into my Relationship? Part 1

Thinking about initiating a conversation about your concerns, emotions, or perceived issues with your partner can be a daunting task. A common thought that is often had while preparing to bring up an issue is, “Why would I want to start a fight?” Although suppressing emotions can feel like a short-term bandaid to avoid uncomfortable feelings, this can be detrimental and have long-term negative effects on the relationship. Suppressing emotions can lead to long-term resentment within relationships, which, unfortunately, is a common occurrence. 

Keeping all of this in mind, we at Symmetry Counseling believe that having consistent healthy conversations in our relationships helps us to protect our partners and the future of our relationships. In this article, we will discuss three major techniques to consider when approaching a productive confrontation with your partner. If you are experiencing relationship problems in your life, contact us today to get set up with an expert couples counselor or individual counselor who specializes in relationship problems and helps steer your connection in the right direction.

Scheduled “Arguments”

Creating a safe environment while laying out positive intentions to have a healthy conversation is crucial.  Although it may feel like the last thing you want to do, research shows that “Scheduled Arguments” can be very beneficial in relationships.  Scheduling an argument can look like putting time on the calendar every Monday at 8 pm to sit down and work through conflict, or if you need to bring up a specific concern with your partner, expressing that you would like to sit down and talk to them about things at a time that works best for them. Let your partner pick the time when they will be in the best headspace possible. We can be preparing all day to bring something up to our partners, and little did we know they had a terrible workday and missed lunch. We all know we are not on our best behavior after a tough work day or on an empty stomach.  In either scenario, it allows each party the opportunity to come into the conversation regulated and with their physical needs met (hunger, thirst, sleep, etc.).  These vulnerabilities can often lead to one party being more easily vulnerable to being triggered, leading to an escalated fight. 

“I” Statements

One very effective healthy communication strategy is the use of “I” statements.  An “I” statement is a sentence that begins with the phrase “I am feeling insert emotion.”.  Using “I” statements helps us to express our experiences, feelings and concerns in a way that takes our partners off the defense. Often, when we focus our attention on our partner’s behavior, this puts our loved ones in this position of feeling attacked, criticized, or blamed.  Using this technique promotes constructive conversation and helps to prevent the escalation of an issue that would result in our partner’s nervous system being activated. When our nervous systems are activated, this often triggers what is known as a “fight,” “flight, or “freeze response.” This means that when our partner feels attacked, often they respond by fighting back, running away from the conversation, or shutting down. “I” statements help our partners to feel safe, therefore allowing them to receive what we are trying to tell them. This gives us the opportunity to be heard and validated!

Examples of “I” Statements

Instead of saying this: “You never make me a priority when we go out to eat. All you care about is your phone.”

With “I” Statements, we could say: “I feel sad and lonely when you are on your phone while we are out to dinner. I would like to connect with you and feel closer to you.”

Or

Instead of saying this: “You constantly drive home and don’t text me. It’s like you don’t consider my feelings.”

With “I” Statements, we could say: “I feel anxious and worried about you when I don’t know if you made it home safely.” 

If you were on the other end of this conversation, which sentences would you be more open and receptive to? Which sentences would allow you to make space for empathy versus defensiveness?

Physical Touch (Nonverbal Healthy Communication)

I know what you’re thinking, “The last thing I want to do when I am angry or upset with my partner is touch them”.  We often pull away and shield ourselves out of “protection” when approaching confrontation.  Research actually shows that we can regulate the nervous system and calm down our flight or fight response by connecting physically with our partners during an argument. Research shows (Jakubiak & Feeney, 2019) that physical touch during a conflict promotes intimacy, connection, security, and a sense of commitment. Studies have shown that while engaging in physical contact during an argument, stress levels decreased, and each party was able to see their partner as a teammate. This is because affectionate touch releases oxytocin, the hormone responsible for bonding, while also working to release those feel-good chemicals we know as endorphins (Seidman, 2019).  Studies have shown that affectionate touch from a loved one actually decreases cortisol levels and heart rate (Seidman, 2019).  Can you imagine the shift in the room happening between you and your partner when all of these physical changes are in motion? Physical touch during an argument can look like a kiss on the cheek, gliding your finger along your partner’s back, a handhold, cuddling, etc. 

Next time you find yourself working to resolve conflict with your partner, schedule a time to proactively work through issues when you are both regulated, reach over and grab your partner’s hand during the discussion, and work to express your feelings using “I” statements.  I hope with these tools, we can begin to reframe “fighting with our partners” to having proactive healthy conversations. If you are interested in working with a therapist to learn more about communication tools to strengthen your relationship, we have plenty of talented, licensed therapists who work with couples and individuals.  Please reach out to Symmetry Counseling at 888-661-2742

Cohen, R. (2021, September 14). The secret to a fight-free relationship. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/09/delaying-conflict-better-venting-relationships-scheduled-disagreement/620057/ 

 

Jakubiak, B. K., & Feeney, B. C. (2019). Hand-in-hand combat: Affectionate touch promotes relational well-being and buffers stress during conflict. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45, 431-446.

Francine Montemurro, F. (n.d.). “I” messages or “I” statements – Boston University Medical Campus. https://www.bumc.bu.edu/facdev-medicine/files/2011/08/I-messages-handout.pdf 

Seidman , G. (n.d.). A simple trick to smooth conflict discussions. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/close-encounters/201902/simple-trick-smooth-conflict-discussions?amp 

 

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