When asked their goal of relationship therapy, most couples sitting in my room will talk to me about improving their communication. “If only we communicated better”, they say, “we’d be able to have a happier relationship.”
These couples are quite right. Communication is a cornerstone of any good relationship. However, it is rare that I meet a couple where communication is the core problem. Many are communicating exactly how they feel to each other, and they are understanding each other perfectly. The real problem seems to be WHAT they are communicating – and that is, lack of respect. Their words, their non-verbal cues, their facial expressions are screaming: “I don’t respect you!” There is no doubt that if you communicate disrespect, it’s very hard for the other person to hear anything else you may be saying, except through that filter.
Respect Is The Key
Psychologists know that good relationships take hard work. The better the relationship, the more work has been put into it. And we know that when you are working at a relationship you have to be looking for the good in the other person. You find the things that you like and build on them and support the other person in growing through their own difficulties to become even more worthy of your love. In most cases, relationships begin with immense respect between the couple. You would think that as the work of the relationship continues on both sides, each would feel only increasing respect for the other. Love is only part of the necessary ingredients for a good relationship. In my opinion, respect actually trumps love as THE most important part of the relationship equation. It’s the secret to relationship happiness!
So perhaps this explains the problem of disrespect that I see in many of my relationship therapy sessions. Couples believe that all they have to do is love the other person and the relationship will take care of itself. They don’t think about the hard work that the best relationships take, because we don’t really talk about that. We talk about relationships that seem good and relationships that fail. What we don’t seem to understand is they only don’t fail when we put in the hard work. I should add that it is the only work that makes you feel less tired, more energised, afterwards than beforehand.
Putting Each Other First
The work is of having your partner’s back, looking out for their needs, with the confidence that they are doing the same for you. The work is not about household chore sharing (although that can contribute to overall contentment). I am talking about putting the other person’s needs first in the relationship, being attuned to their moods and soothing rather than aggravating the other. I am talking about risking doing good things for the other person, even though they may not be noticed. Allow yourself to feel good in the doing, rather than waiting for acknowledgement and building resentment when it doesn’t arise.
What Are You Communicating?
So, to return to communication. The first thing is to be aware of what you are actually communicating.
- Are you being respectful of your partner and their needs?
- Do you try to communicate something important when they are immersed in watching their very favourite TV series or sport? Are you getting angry and resentful when they don’t listen?
- Are you being disrespectful of your partner’s need to talk now, and refusing to listen because it is interrupting your show? Or are you acknowledging that your partner must really need you right now or they wouldn’t ask?
The very timing and manner of your communication should be respectful and of course the words need to also convey respect.
Being respectful is the first step for improving communication. With mutual respect will come reciprocity, you will each give to the other the time that is needed to share important things with each other.