“The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply…” Roy T. Bennett wrote in his book “The Light in the Heart “.
This, perhaps more than any other facet of a relationship, is the key to staying married, staying partners, even staying friends. True listening, listening to understand, is a passive suspension of disbelief, and one of the few times when passivity is a positive response.
To achieve this passivity – this openness to impressions, opinions, and ideas – we need to do several things. First, we need to become completely calm. If we have been fighting, we need to step away from each other and find a “safe” place where we can let our heart rate drop below a certain threshold (90 beats per minute for females, 82 beats a minute for males). Anything above this and the body’s defense systems will kick in for the fight-or-flight (or freeze) response.
This reaction, also known as the acute stress response, triggers all kinds of hormones, none of them useful unless you are being attacked or inside the house when a fire starts. In fact, it is only when your heart rate drops below this threshold that you can access the logical portion of your brain – the only area worth connecting unless you want an instant argument.
It will likely take you about half an hour to access this calmer, cooler you. Once you have reached stasis, or emotional equilibrium, you are no longer in danger of having the stress function of your brain overcome the logical function. Only then can you resume communication without having to worry about saying something hurtful.
The second step is not to sweep all those negative emotions under the rug and hope they won’t crop up again, because they will – again and again, until the relationship is truly beyond repair. Instead, focus on the issue that brought on the storm. Most times you will find it is a small thing – someone forgot to turn off the alarm on the weekend, or failed to reactivate the cell phones.
Once you have identified the “trigger” issue, talk about it, but in a blameless way. Say something like “We need to have our cell phones ready at all times, in case one of us is hurt or in trouble.” Always use the word “we” and always make it a joint issue.
Once you have explained your frustrations, you can move on to other topics. Silence may be golden, but not in a relationship. On the other hand, communication doesn’t always have to be about problems. Throw in some praise, or memories of good times, to balance the more negative problem areas. Because once couples settle into a relationship, the rapture begins to unravel – as it must over the long term if that relationship is to survive.
Finally, never have a conversation when one person seems solely focused on a project, a program, or a promise. If she has a girlfriend over fitting a dress, if he is watching the NBA playoffs, or if only one half of a couple remembers the time you both agreed not to have “company” on Sunday, turn the anger off. Not every interaction requires a winner or loser. Or, as a wise woman once said: “Pick your battles, but remember. Winning the battle is not the same as winning the war.”
Written by Kin Leung, MFT, providing Couples Therapy Burlingame