Most couples start out arguing about one thing and within a few minutes are arguing about the way they are arguing. We all know that it can take minutes to destroy something that took years, even decades to build, so why aren’t we more careful with our words? Probably because people that are sexually involved have a more difficult time being objective than friends or business partners. How to remedy this?
John Gray’s classic book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus is a useful read for everyone, even those not in a relationship, because it shows us how to take a step back, listen, and truly understand how other people (mainly of the opposite sex) need to be supported and communicated with in a language they can identify with.
Gray’s key advice to couples is this: never argue. Instead, discuss the pros and cons of something. Negotiate for what you want but don’t argue. Some couples suppress their honest feelings in order to avoid conflict but it is possible to be honest, open, and express negative feelings without fighting.
With loving and respectful communication, differences and disagreements don’t hurt as much. Men, when challenged, often react by focusing on being right, but their tone can be un-loving. So a woman, who would otherwise be receptive to the content of what he is saying, cannot hear him because she feels attacked by how he is saying it. The most important things a man needs to work on is his delivery. Women loathe it when they feel like their feelings are being minimized or dismissed. He needs to make her feel safe, validated, and cherished, rather than judged or ignored.
A common example Gray gives is,
When a man has done something to upset a woman. His instinct is to make her feel better by explaining why she shouldn’t be upset. He confidently explains that he has a perfectly good, logical, and rational reason for what he did. He has no idea that this attitude makes her feel as though she has no right to be upset. When he explains himself, the only message she may hear is that he doesn’t care about her feelings. For her to hear his good reasons, she first needs him to hear her good reasons for being upset. He needs to put his explanation on hold and listen with understanding.
In general, a man could offer more validation by taking a deep breath and just listening. If she says something like “you never listen,” a man can say, “You are right. Sometimes I don’t listen. I’m sorry, you don’t deserve to be treated this way. Let’s start over. This time we will do better.”
Women also do not realize how they hurt men in arguments. When a woman feels challenged her tone often becomes more mistrusting and rejecting, and then she share’s negative feelings about her partner’s behavior and gives advice that wasn’t asked for. This hurts men because a lot of women don’t recognize that men never intend to make matters worse. So women, in general, need to work on communicating with a sense of trust, appreciation, acceptance, and forgiveness instead of making him feel like she is trying to improve or control him. Also, women should save their criticism for a private conversation, and never criticize him in front of his friends. He needs to know his woman has his back, rightfully so.
Women are often not as direct with their feelings as they need to be. For example, when a man is late showing up for something, a woman may be worried something happened to him or simply feel that she doesn’t like waiting around, but instead of expressing her feelings she asks a rhetorical question like, “How could you be so late?” or “What am I supposed to think when you are so late?” Gray says,
When a woman is upset the tone of her voice reveals that she is not looking for a valid answer but is making the point that there is no acceptable reason for being late. When a man hears rhetorical questions he does not hear her feelings but instead hears her disapproval. He feels her intrusive desire to help him be more responsible. He feels attacked and becomes defensive. She has no idea how painful her disapproval is to him. Just as women need validation, men need approval. The more a man loves a woman the more he needs her approval… Women are generally oblivious of how they pull away their approval.
In this situation, a woman could be less disapproving by saying something like, “I really don’t like it when you’re late. It is upsetting to me. I would really appreciate a call next time you are going to be late.”
No matter how interesting or intelligent what you have to say is, it always comes down to what the other person hears, so both sides need to work on being mindful not just about what they are saying but who they are saying it to and how they’re saying it.
Frankly, I think the better your communication is with your partner, the better your sex life will be. This recent article by Elizabeth Bernstein in WSJ talks about the many reasons why couples have sex but ultimately highlights the idea that the more you work on your communication and connection outside the bedroom, the more amazing your sex life inside the bedroom.
Further reading: Making Relationships Work – 4-Part Series From Dr. John Gottman