Improving communication when you communicate differently

Opposites attract — and then they spend the next 20 years trying to get their partner to be just like them.

Joe isn’t a big talker, especially when it comes to his feelings. He tends to keep his thoughts and emotions in. But his wife, Sarah, is a straight shooter. She doesn’t hold back — when she’s frustrated, angry, or upset about something, Joe’s going to hear about it.

I’ve observed over many years of clinical practice that opposites attract. Then they spend the next 20 years trying to get their partner to be just like them.

So, what’s the problem? Joe avoids conflict and Sarah wants to take problems head on. She’s frustrated by his avoidance and he’s intimidated by her directness. Their discussions tend to spiral downward quickly, resulting in hurt feelings. Needless to say, problems don’t get resolved — they just simmer or boil over.

So how can couples change this up?

Talk about how you communicate. Make a date to talk about your communication styles. Joe acknowledges that he avoids conflict and gets defensive when Sarah directly confronts him. Sarah notes that she does have the tendency to ramp up, especially when Joe gets defensive. She realizes that when Joe explains why he did or didn’t do something this triggers her frustration. When Joe feels attacked, he shuts down. Neither style works well.

When Joe tries to “explain” something, it sounds more like an excuse than a clarification. Sure, there’s always reasons why we do or don’t do things. But providing a reason doesn’t give us a free pass.

Sarah realizes that she might get a better response from Joe if she lowers her intensity a notch.

Take responsibility. Acknowledge when you’ve let your partner down or made a mistake. Don’t make excuses or bring up missteps your partner has made. This just makes everything worse. The other day my wife, Diane, reminded me that I had not put the garbage out, and I quickly acknowledged my error and took care of it. I didn’t go through a long explanation of how busy I was. Or bring up anything she did or didn’t do.

Agree to a short time out when discussions get heated. If your discussion starts to get hot, agree to a five-minute time out (no longer). Take a break to cool down and get your perspective back. Take some long, slow and deep breaths. Find the high road and stay on it.

Don’t discuss important issues when you’re angry. This is a recipe for accomplishing nothing. Make a date to discuss the issue when you’re not angry, tired or hungry. Don’t put it off for too long.

Tackle one issue at a time. Don’t take on every problem. Start with the low hanging fruit — a relatively minor source of conflict. Success breeds hope, which is the fuel for taking on more difficult problems.

Listen. Sigh. We are always so focused on getting our point across that we don’t really hear our partner’s concerns. Give each partner three to four minutes to state their point of view without interruption. Pay close attention to what your partner is saying. Focus on trying to understand each other’s perspective. Ask questions to get clarification.

Negotiate. Getting your way is overrated. Finding a solution that brings you halfway to your destination is progress. I know, compromise is in short supply all around us, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t come to an agreement with our loved one.

Be patient, be generous and be kind. Rome was not rebuilt in a day. It takes time to change habits. Sometimes we take three steps forward and then two steps back. Acknowledge your partner’s small successes! Be patient when he or she takes a step backward.

And always, be kind.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at

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