You may not even realize it at the time. Do you ever feel your partner knows just how to push your buttons, and off you go? Or no matter what you say, he/she flies off the handle? It's no fun to argue with someone you care about -- and yet, we do it all too often. Even when it seems our partner was starting it, we know there have got to be things we contribute to the fight. The first step to change is recognizing what these things are.
Here are five common mistakes people often make when communicating with their significant others.
1. You get defensive. Your partner brings up an issue and you feel misunderstood and accused. Because it seems unfair, rather than trying to deeply understand what your partner is saying, you immediately reject their point and refuse to admit any shortcomings. The mission becomes to prove your innocence. It is human nature to want to protect yourself from attacks but while we are in that "mode," emotional survival temporarily becomes much more important to us than connection with others. Therapists call this a "triggered state" — and while it is a common reaction to being criticized, the manner in which you respond to your partner during that state is likely to hurt and trigger them and the vicious cycle continues.
2. You change the subject. Changing the subject is a popular way to divert from the fact that someone is frustrated with you, or just from the emotional discomfort of having to discuss something difficult. If changing the subject doesn’t work, listing your own grievances is another common way to distract from the thing you were told. Whatever your "signature reaction" to conflict is, it likely stems from a pattern you learned in childhood and while it may have developed for a self-protective reason, it may be time to exercise some new "emotional muscles."
3. You offer a solution without really hearing the problem. It's hard to listen when you feel like you already know the answer to your partner's dilemma. If he/she just followed your advice, this whole thing could go away, right? But jumping to proposing a solution to your partner's problem is rarely why he/she wanted to talk with you. Apart from the fact that the first thing that pops into your mind has probably already occurred to your partner, what your partner is really looking for is empathy — your understanding of the burden and your willingness to carry it with him/her.
4. You expect your partner to be a mind-reader. When you desire something, you might believe that your partner should know how you feel and what you want him/her to do about it. You might believe that you shouldn't have to tell him/her or if you did, that his/her assistance would somehow be of a lesser value. Mind-reading also applies when you think that you know what your partner is going to say next or assume you can guess his/her intent or motivation.
5. You act hopeless. If this isn't your first time around the arguing cycle, you might want to give in to the emerging thought that you've "tried everything" and "nothing works." You feel like the victim of your partner's tyranny. In response, you shut down or resign yourself to your fate. This is another way of protecting your feelings that has the side effect of triggering your partner's insecurities, getting in the way of finding real solutions.
So, what can you do instead?
The most important part to remember is acknowledging and validating your partner's feelings. You'll want to find some truth in what they are saying, even if you don't agree with everything. If your partner's statements don’t make sense to you, ask gentle questions to find out more. Rather than barking back, "What is that supposed to mean?!" ... ask them to tell you more. When you speak, express your feelings as honestly as you can, but start sentences with "I feel" rather than "You are" or "You do."
Even if you're upset and annoyed, try to convey a caring and respectful attitude rather than giving in to the urge to be condescending. Oftentimes, just finding one positive thing to say about your partner's point can go a long way. While you cannot control what your partner says to you, there are things you can do to improve your interactions with them and more positive experiences will over time improve your own emotional reactivity as well.