When a couple approaches me for relationship counseling, nine times out of ten they mention trouble communicating as a source of distress between them. We easily fall into traps that allow communication to become an argument. Instead of finding a way to move things forward with each person getting their needs met, the conflict becomes a sideshow about who is right and who is wrong.
Since relationships are created and maintained by both parties involved, things rarely sort out so one partner is the blameless victim while the other is the guilty one, the perpetrator. So why do couples box themselves into this unproductive corner? Two words are usually to blame: always and never.
Always and never are powerfully destructive words. Statements that start “I always have to …” or “You never…” aren’t an invitation to conversation; they’re about fighting for the moral high ground and making sure the speaker of those words occupies it. They establish the speaker as the wronged one while implying the other is a selfish, thoughtless, lazy person.
If your communication has as its purpose establishing that your partner is inadequate, it shouldn’t be surprising your partner intensely disagrees with you. But by arguing from a position of absolutes, you’ve already raised the stakes in the argument. In contrast, your partner only has to come up with one instance at variance from your scenario to derail you – at least in his mind. I never take out the garbage? Why, I took out the recycling just last week, and it was really smelly; don’t say I never help around here! You always initiate sex? Well, when I did two months ago, you turned me down. Don’t say you always want it!
This is not a formula for happiness or getting what you most deeply want.
Arguments that include of claims of always or never inherently convey rigidity. Those claims often come across as contemptuous to the other partner, dismissive of any exceptions to the argument or any reasons your partner might have for their actions. Small wonder that always and never set the stage for many couples’ most painful arguments.
They also betray the sort of defeatism that undermines loving relationships. In healthy relationships, each partner is influenced by the needs of the other. Always and never discount that influence. They are a way of saying “I don’t matter to you.”
Successful relationships develop strategies for the expression of each partner’s needs while de-escalating arguments before they go thermonuclear. Some helpful strategies:
- Realizie that each criticism is an unexpressed request. If I haven’t asked you to do something (probably because I think you should be able to figure out what I want without me telling you!), how fair is it for me to claim that you “never” do it?
- Avoid sweeping generalizations. Maybe I do a chore more often than you do, but to claim that you have never helped with it during the entire history of our relationship is likely to get us off track by looking for exceptions to my claim, or by discounting the other contributions you make to our happiness.
- Make a soft start. “Honey, I’ve got something I need to talk about. Is this a good time?” helps to establish a non-confrontational atmosphere.
- Don’t throw too many complaints out at once. That just leads to your partner feeling overwhelmed and defeated. If you’ve got something on your mind, don’t use the opportunity to bring up every possible annoyance.
- Express appreciation. When partners acknowledge and appreciate one another, it helps to keep the relationship lubricated with good will. And it takes several appreciations to smooth out the ruffles caused by one stinging criticism.