By Hanalei Vierra, Ph.D. and M’Lissa Trent, Ph.D.
1) Respectful Communication – unless both parties are willing to speak to each other in a respectful way, working out differences will be impossible. Let’s keep it simple and real: Respectful communication means speaking to someone in the way that we ourselves want to be spoken to. The real test here comes when someone needs to express anger (see #6) and/or their own version of what happened that caused the disagreement in the first place (see #3). Also: no mind reading; no “keeping score” of past grievances; and no sending mixed messages about how you feel.
2) No Double Standards – that the values and standards we use to measure and evaluate our partner’s behavior are the same values and standards we use to measure and evaluate our own behavior. For example, if I feel hurt by something that my wife said or did to me—and if I want her to hear about my pain and be accountable for what she said or did—then I myself need to be open to whatever pain I may have caused her to feel and be accountable myself for what I may have done or said to hurt her.
3) Healthy Boundaries — This means listening to each other without interruption because each person has the right—not only to their own version of whatever it is that happened—but also to express their version of what happened without interruption, harassment, or “reality check” from the other person. We all have our own unique filter for how we perceive any given event in our lives. Agree to take turns as to who will speak and who will listen, but whoever is in the listening role, do just that: listen! You will get your turn to speak! Also, it is disrespectful to try to tell the other person how he or she feels at any given time. You can be the expert of your own feelings--but not of anyone else’s.
4) No “Fight or Flight” – since the Survival Mode of “fight or flight” is a coping mechanism we all do and is probably what helped create the discord in the first place, more of the same will only make the situation worse. “Fight” is any form of aggressive attack, harsh judgment, insult, criticism, or accusation toward the other person. “Flight” is any form of hiding out, shutting down, defensiveness, or deflection of responsibility or accountability for hurtful behavior. Neither of these is productive. In attempting to reach mutual understanding with another person, remember that if it feels like the conversation is starting to spiral down into a fight-or-flight dynamic, then consider taking a Time Out (see #5 below). After any fight or flight reaction, circle back to your partner, and try to talk to each other in a respectful way (see #1).
5) Take a Time Out – when push comes to shove (figuratively speaking of course), an agreed upon Time Out could help to defuse the heightened need for “fight or flight”. The Time Out consists of two pieces: 1) agreement to separate in order to “cool off”, and 2) an agreed-upon time to re-convene in order to finish the conversation. Whatever time frame is needed to regroup—whether it is ten minutes or one hour or till later on in the day—agree to how much of a Time Out is needed, take it, then come back and pick up where you left off, but re-engage within the framework of the above Relationship Agreements. Time Out can never be used as a means of “flight”. It must used as a way of getting back on track with healthy communication.
6) Assertiveness — is the willingness to be honest and forthright without being aggressive. This means “telling it straight” in a loving manner without tip toeing around your partner. As we have said many times in our columns before, if you are tip toeing or walking on egg shells, you are hiding out in fear of your partner’s reaction. This only leads to built up resentment in you and lack of trust from your partner. Being assertive creates an honest and loving style of communication that we believe serves healthy communication the best and builds trust with the most consistency.
7) Accountability – is very crucial to building honest communication and growth in the relationship. When you have played a part in the misunderstanding between you and your partner, do not hesitate to hear it, own it, think about why you did what you did, and be accountable for it. Figure out what triggered you so you can conscientiously try something different the next time you are faced with a similar challenge. In addition, when you are ready to make a sincere apology, you need to say “I am sorry for what I did”, not “I am sorry if you are feeling hurt”. The former is taking full responsibility. The latter is putting the responsibility back on your partner.
8) Validation and Empathy – Putting yourself in your partner’s shoes for a moment to try to imagine how they are feeling is an important skill to develop. If you can’t have empathy for your spouse’s “hot buttons”, you create a Double Standard (see #2) when you expect him or her to try to understand your own. Validating the other person doesn’t mean “agreeing” with their position. It means allowing that their point of view makes sense given who they are--despite the fact that you have a different point of view. Mutual respect is about honoring each other’s uniqueness--not about judging our differences. Validation and empathy help us remember why we chose each other way back when all we thought we had were reasons to trust and love each other.
Hanalei Vierra, Ph.D. (Dr. He) and M’Lissa Trent, Ph.D. (Dr. She) are a married couple who have worked together for over 14 years coaching troubled relationships to clearer communication, deeper intimacy, and healthier partnership. See their web site at www.sandiegotherapists.com/conjoint.html Please email any questions to: DrHanalei@aol.com . For more information on Relationship Advice for Men and to purchase their e-book go to www.HowToKeepHer.com on the web.