Communication in a committed relationship
It’s a paradox, but for many the ease of communication falls away as a relationship grows closer and more committed. The little voice in your head cries, “Don’t screw it up!” and communication starts to become more cautious, more careful not to “start trouble.” But with the dropping off of honest and open communication, the relationship starts to feel stilted and remote, so that each person is living two lives: a superficial and pleasant life with the partner, and an internal life of questioning and dissatisfaction.
I once had the good fortune to talk to a therapist about this sort of thing, and she pointed out that being totally open and honest with your partner is what drew that person to you in the first place. You are, in fact, interesting to your partner, just as your partner is interesting to you. And that interest stems in no small part that each of you see the other as s/he is: a complex living and changing person.
She pointed out that babies and toddlers are endlessly fascinating to watch, and the reason is that they are totally open: you can see their feelings clearly, and they never dissemble, they have not learned to assume a façade. You see them make discoveries, try things out, and change daily, and it’s fascinating. So also it is in an intimate relationship that manages to live daily without walls and dissimulation. And all it requies is to discard the fear that, by exposing your true thoughts and your actual feelings, you’ll “screw it up.” You won’t. In fact, you’ll revitalize not only the relationship but also yourself: it takes a lot of energy and attention to keep up a front. It’s very relaxing just to be yourself with someone you love and trust. And it’s extremely reassuring to know that the other loves you for exactly who you are, rather than loving a false image of you that you’ve created.
I was reminded of this by a very interesting post in The Simple Dollar in which Trent talks about how he and his wife were able to recast and redefine their financial lives—and, as you’ll see, a good part of it was the decision that he would ignore any feelings he might have had that it would be better not to rock the boat, better to smooth over problems rather than face them. Instead, he deliberately—and carefully—set about exposing the truth and confiding in her.
I had two additional thoughts, one personal and one political. The personal one first.
In any relationship, some things the partner habitually does will annoy you (and vice versa, of course). A different therapist gave me a very useful and effective way to surface the issue, though it does require some introspection. The first thing to do is to determine the nature of the annoyance: is it that the action makes you feel taken for granted? humiliated? frightened? rejected? — ponder your own response, not the partner’s action, until you feel that you understand the feeling the action provokes.
Then trace that feeling back—probably to your childhood, but perhaps to an earlier relationship. Something else has triggered that same feeling back in your past, and when I say “probably in your childhood” it’s because many of our responses from our earlier interactions within the family: parents, siblings, cousins, and so on. The guide is the feeling—the emotional response—not the action. The action in the past could have been different; the feeling is the guide.
Then you can bring this up to your partner, and the formulation is, “When you do X, it makes me feel Y, because when I was a child Z.” Notice that it’s not confrontation or judgmental, nor does it ask for a change—the change will occur because of the partner’s greater understanding and his or her love for you. And it really works.
I would add that the formulation, “Could you please not do X?” doesn’t work because the partner may view that as an inappropriate limitation on his/her natural actions. Even if s/he discontinues the action, there may be some residual resentment that s/he’s having to make a change for not good reason. The other formulation brings understanding.
The second thought is political. In reading Glenn Greenwald’s excellent column this morning, I found this anecdote:
Here’s what The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer reported last week during her Washington Post chat:
Albany New York: I’ve already ordered your book from Amazon, but am very interested in your take on why there’s been no little effective political opposition to any of this Administration’s initiatives. Is it a question of limited public awareness or interest, or a more political calculation that one shouldn’t appear to be soft on terrorism?Jane Mayer: Since you’re in New York, let me tell you about a conversation I had with one of your senators, Chuck Schumer. When I asked him why, given his safe seat, and ostensible concern for civil liberties, he didn’t speak out more against the Bush Administration’s detention and interrogation programs, he said in essence that voters don’t care about these issues. So, he said, he wasn’t going to talk about them.
Schumer, it seems to me, is abandoning one of the responsibilities of the elected official: to make sure that his or her constituents understand the issues and recognize their relative importance. This requires explaining to the constituents how the representative him/herself views the issues and what his/her values are in evaluating what actions to take. Schumer is taking the role of the person in a relationship who thinks it’s better not to rock the boat, don’t screw it up, keep quiet, be pleasant, agree even when inwardly you don’t agree. And the result is a growing distance and an artificial life. Schumer doesn’t know what his constituents value, since he doesn’t talk to them openly, and they don’t know what he values. (They do know, of course, that he foisted Mukasey on the nation.)