We all know that at times relationships of all kinds can feel like hard work. Whether it’s family, friends or romantic, relationships are often a major source of stress in our lives.
Having disagreements or arguments is perfectly natural. If we spend a lot of time with people and care about them, sooner or later we are going to disagree on something. Often the difference in the outcome is in how we are able to relate to each other during any disagreements.
‘Winning’ the argument
Sometimes it can feel in the moment like the only important thing is to win the argument or to prove that you are right. We lose sight of what’s important or how best to communicate our feelings. I’ve personally fallen foul of this many times myself.
Its much worse if the conflict leaves you feeling vulnerable. Your ability to be reasonable and think rationally goes out of the window, defensiveness kicks in and it provokes a similar response in the other person creating a cycle.
Before you know it you don’t even know what you are arguing about any more. You are both left feeling frustrated and misunderstood. Over time we fall into patterns like this and this can build resentful.
The irony here is that we resent each other for not feeling understood, but often we haven’t actually said what we feel, so how can we expect them to understand us?
The problem with passive communication
Have you ever had one of those situations where someone is clearly upset or annoyed with you, you ask what’s wrong and the response is ‘If you don’t know what’s wrong, I’m not going to tell you’? Or the equally frustrating ‘Nothing’. This seemingly baffling response leaves us in the land of guess-work.
Even if we have an idea of what’s wrong we still don’t know how they feel about it so we are left to communicate through assumptions or guesswork. We are all capable of making these assumptions.
If we spend a lot of time with someone we love we have a tendency to assume they know us so well that they should know how we feel. They should know why we are upset with them and if they don’t we tend to feel further frustration.
Getting caught up in the guessing game
In the absence of knowing we try to guess at what their actions or silence means, reading into the meanings of text messages or unanswered calls. Our minds start to play games with us as we try to solve the puzzle in our heads looking at it from every conceivable angle. In reality we are trying to put a jigsaw together without all the pieces and pure guesswork.
This is a fundamental breakdown in communications and it continues over time can lead to further arguments and resentment. Neither person knows what is going on in the others head but both are making assumptions. This can cause great stress and tension in our lives.
If the quality of our relationships with partners, friends or family are tense or volatile, we no longer feel secure and can start to shrink inside ourselves. This stress inevitably has a knock on effect in other areas of our lives.
So why don’t we just say how we feel?
If we don’t feel comfortable sharing our real feelings, they tend to sneak out by our actions or body language.
Acting distant, avoiding physical affection or breaking communication patterns. For example, not replying to text messages in a manner we ordinarily would. These are all common signs.
Understanding our relationship with vulnerability
The underlying problem is often in our struggle to deal with uncertainty and vulnerability. Admitting we feel vulnerable is not easy, it’s a big risk. It can feel all the more risky if it involves someone we love; by admitting to our vulnerability we are putting ourselves in a position where we are open to being hurt.
Rather than admit to how we are feeling, we might resist and swallow or deny our feelings. Our reluctance to share vulnerable feelings may also be made worse if we have grown up in an environment where emotional expression was not encouraged.
Here’s an example I’ve created to illustrate :
Dave and Janice have been married 5 years, they live together and have a young baby called Daniel. Since Janice gave birth she has felt increasingly insecure about her body alongside being exhausted from the demands of looking after Daniel, she is struggling with low moods and feeling vulnerable.
Dave supports Janice as best he can whilst working long hours and often comes home tired and jaded, juggling his work and the sleepless nights looking after the baby. Janice, feeling so attached to Daniel spends many nights sleeping in the same room, watching and checking up on him from time to time.
Over time Dave starts to feels frustrated and left out that he is away during the day and left to sleep alone many nights. Dave feels jealous of their closeness and misses intimacy with his wife but feels unable to voice this as it feels selfish. Dave’s unexpressed feelings lead to him being moody and he tries to initiate sex with Janice late in the evenings to try to re-establish some intimacy between them.
Janice is exhausted and preoccupied with caring for Daniel, she neither knows how Dave feels nor feels appreciated herself. Janice, not feeling remotely sexy turns down Dave’s advances, which in turn leaves Dave feeling rejected and insecure in the relationship.
Both wanting the same thing…
In this example neither Janice or Dave were being emotionally honest about how they feel, which lead to them both making assumptions about the other, creating friction and stress.
Whilst this is just an example and it’s perfectly normal for communication to temporarily breakdown in relationships, if this cycle continues over time it can potentially lead to bigger problems.
Resentment may build, trust can be undermined and if one or more of the people involved feels increasingly insecure, they may try to assert themselves in other ways by controlling parts of the relationship rather than take the risk of vulnerability.
In reality both Janice and Dave want to feel close to each other and appreciated but the lines of communication have broken down. Dave feels unable to express how much he misses their closeness and attempts to express it in a physical way instead, resulting in further insecurity and frustration when his advances are spurned.
Janice is exhausted and without knowing why Dave is being moody feels unappreciated herself, she misinterprets Dave’s attempts to communicate his needs and thinks Dave just expects sex from her.
Owning your feelings
If however, Dave or Janice took the risk and opened up about how they feel by owning their feelings, there is a good chance the other will also feel able to share their own vulnerabilities.
This creates an opportunity for both Dave and Janice to communicate authentically and openly and reassure each other. This is the kind of communication which strengthens bonds and helps people feel more connected.
Two people sharing honest feelings without being defensive is far more powerful than two people feeling like they are being strong by saying nothing.
Dave & Janice could then act on this knowledge together. Janice might feel reassured that Dave misses feeling close to her too. She might actively involve him more with Daniel whilst making more time for him. Dave might be reassured that Janice does still want him and that he is still a very important part of the family unit.
This brings the family closer rather than creating distance within their family unit. It could have a positive ripple effect throughout the rest of their daily lives, lowering stress and further cementing their relationship.
The courage to be vulnerable…
None of us are perfect at communicating our needs and we shouldn’t expect to be, we all negotiate relationships as best we can and knowing the importance of emotional honesty doesn’t make you, me or anyone else a master of relationships.
However, the point isn’t to be perfect as none of us are, its more about increasing your self-awareness so you might realise why you feel a certain way. Of course, all relationships are a two-way street and it requires willingness on both parts, there is only so much one party can do.
It is however, perfectly human to make mistakes, if you catch yourself being defensive or moody without expressing why, reflect for a moment on why that may be. Whatever the reason is, is it OK to share it? You may protect yourself by keeping things to yourself but its up to you to consider if its worth the cost?
Should you realise you are being unreasonable, a genuine heartfelt apology for being moody is highly under rated. It takes courage to apologise honestly and put your vulnerability on the line. That is often enough to breakdown barriers. These same principles can apply to any kind of relationship that you care about, whether its romantic, family or friend.
If you know you have a tendency to bottle up how you feel, avoid confrontation or go silent when you feel vulnerable or angry, remember people can only deal with the things they know.
If you don’t communicate your feelings, the other person will be left to guess or make assumptions based on what you do actually say or your non verbal signals.
By being honest with how you feel, you are offering an opportunity for understanding, and its worth noting that you can’t genuinely apologise for something without knowing what you are apologising for.
Next time you feel strongly about something, can you be courageous and more honest with your feelings?
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