Every time I read or hear something about improving communication I try it with my husband and we do better for a little while, but then we have a disagreement and always seem to fall back into our old ways. How can we stop this cycle? I know we won't ever be perfect at it, but how can we not fall into our same traps all the time?
You are definitely not alone on this. It is human nature to slide back into old habits, even if we know better. A study in the Oct. 20, 2005, issue of Nature, by Ann Graybiel, a professor at MIT, showed that neuron activity in the brain gets set when we form a habit. Changing that behavior is difficult, because the brain’s neuro pathways want to keep doing what they’ve always done.
But you do have the power to change. The first step is becoming aware of your subconscious habits of thinking and the traps that trigger your old behavior. (You may want to take the Fear Assessment on my website, to see your subconscious programs and how they affect you.)
In this last communication article I want to share five common pitfalls of communication with which many couples struggle. They come from Dr. John Lund.
1. Asking leading questions
There are a couple of ways we do this. One is we ask for someone's opinion when we don't really want an answer, like if you ask your husband if you should buy a new coffee table when you've already decided you want to buy it. Another way is when we ask a question hoping for a specific answer, like while driving home, a woman says to her husband, "Do you want to stop and get a treat on our way?" and he takes the question literally and responds, "No, thanks, I'd rather just get home." Well, she's hurt because she wanted to stop! What she should say is, "I would like to stop and get a treat, is that OK with you?"
We have to watch for a subconscious tendency to do this because it is game-playing. We need to shoot straight and just ask for what we want.
2. Mixed messages
There are three ways that we send messages (communication signals) to each other: facial expressions or body language; tone of voice; and the actual words. Sometimes these communication signals don't match up and these are a mixed message. For example, if I have asked my son several times to clean his room and he still hasn't done it, I might say to him in a tense voice, "Will you please clean your room?" He then tells me not to get so mad and I respond, "I said please." The negative tone of voice and the positive words don't match up. We pay the most attention to facial expressions and body language, tone of voice is second, and the actual words are last. My son hears my tone of voice and that discounts the word "please." So we need to work on making sure our body language and tone of voice agree and hold each other accountable for our words only (this is content communication that we talked about last week).
3. Don't ask if you don't want to know
This is a common area where women may not communicate clearly. Think about asking your husband if he thinks you should rearrange the living room furniture (when you already know you want to) and he says no. Now, you have created a problem. You asked his opinion, but you are going to reject it because it isn’t the answer you wanted. According to Lund, men are known to defend their opinion even if it's not the best idea because they are really subconsciously defending their ego. So, it would be better to tell your husband that you are going to move the furniture and ask for his help doing it. Another option is to say upfront, "I'd like to move the furniture. You have some really good insights though, so will you give me your opinion, but then support whatever decision I make?"
Again, women are more notorious for this than men. You might comment about how bad the garbage smells, hoping your husband will jump up and take the garbage out. Or you might mention several times how amazing your friend's husband is because he cooks dinner every Sunday, hoping your husband will start doing that. In general, husbands want their wives to be happy and would rather just be told in a loving way what you would appreciate from them. Hint-dropping can be game-playing and you will always build a better relationship if you shoot straight.
5. If you have to ask, it doesn't count
Another way to say it is, "If you really care about me, you would know." This is probably the most common and most detrimental communication pitfall, and we hear this from our clients all the time. What you're really expecting is someone to read your mind and that is not realistic. Movies and other media have created an expectation of a spouse who always knows the right things to say and do at exactly the right time, but it doesn't happen that way in real life. Expecting someone to read your mind and know what you want is again, playing games. You must ask for what you want and need and then appreciate having a spouse who is a great responder.
The bottom line is that we all have fears, we all make mistakes and we all want to be loved and valued as we are. You and your spouse have different challenges, weaknesses and faults, but you both have good intentions to treat each other right. Neither of you wants to say the wrong thing and start arguments. You must give your spouse the benefit of the doubt more often and remember to see them as the same as you. You are both struggling students in the classroom of life, doing the best you can with what you know, with the exact same intrinsic value. No one is worse and no one is the bad guy. Be patient with yourself and each other, because behavioral changes can't happen overnight.
Keep practicing and commit to forgiving each other when you mess up and over time — you can do this — you can create a better relationship.