This persistent lack of communication in modern relationships is not the couple’s fault. Ever since TV and advertising created the image of a dream relationship, we have rarely learned how to communicate fully, openly, and effectively in our relationships. We pursue a 2D view of perfectionism that the marketing machine has sold to us, denying our true desires and the desires of our partners.
The divorce rate remains steady at around 50% of all marriages, with the likelihood of divorce increasing with 2nd and 3rd marriages. Fewer couples are getting married in the first place, instead opting for a relationship that’s easy to leave when times get tough. And yet, so many of us still dream of a life-long connection with passion, companionship, and love. The critical factor in a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship is Communication. Honest, Appropriate, Respectful, and Direct (HARD) Communication.
Honest communication means being both honest with your partner(s) and honest with yourself. Taking the time to reflect and get in touch with your own thoughts, feelings, biases in order to communicate them with the people in your life. It means looking at, touching, feeling the pain, anger, sadness, joy, fear, pleasure, disgust that we all experience from time to time.
Appropriate communication means management of emotional expression depending on the recipient and the environment. Throwing a temper tantrum, yelling and throwing buttered rolls at the family Thanksgiving dinner table isn’t appropriate communication. Appropriate communication is stating with firmness that you will not engage in a derisive conversation about Aunt Sally’s new husband and if it continues you will opt to excuse yourself (and then of course following through and maintaining that boundary if the conversation continues.).
Respectful communication means having compassion for everyone’s feelings and experiences. Invalidating, dismissing, or challenging a person’s feelings or interpretation of an event reduces their validity as a living, breathing person with their own experiences. Respectful communication is honoring your own feelings and experiences as valid because you feel them and lived through them. Invalidation is very sneaky and well integrated in to our culturally accepted methods of communication, leaving the person being invalidated feeling less worthy and unacceptable. Invalidation of self and others creates distance, destroys connection, and snuffs out passion. Healthy relationships honor and recognize each person’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences as valid and understandable.
Direct communication means saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Many of us, especially people socialized as women, have learned to “beat around the bush” in holding our boundaries, rejecting others, or asking for what we want. Our voices, our desires, have been discouraged and invalidated so much that we often feel that communicating directly about our truth is dangerous. Instead of directly telling the guy flirting with us at the bar that we are not interested, we tell him maybe next time, leaving the door open for him to pursue you again, with more pressure, next week. Instead of telling our partner that we’d really love to have a special date night to connect physically, sexually, we feel personally rejected when she’s asleep on the couch as we emerge from the bathroom donned in fine french lingerie.
Yes, communication is hard. But HARD Communication is critical to the health and happiness of everyone involved in your relationships. Learning new ways of feeling, responding, reacting, and communicating with each other takes time so be patient with each other. A relationship counselor can help you remain honest, appropriate, respectful, and direct, whether your relationship is new, struggling, thriving, or expanding.
*Relationship counseling traditionally addresses couples, but these concepts apply to relationships of all kinds, including polyamorous models, friend networks, extended families, etc.