One of the ways couples counseling works is often by improving communication in your relationship. But what kind of communication you use can have a huge impact on how effective this will be. I often use this little story in my couples counseling sessions—imagine there is a family sitting down for dinner on a weeknight. The father has made dinner, and he and his two kids and his wife all sit down to eat. They’re making conversation as a family about their days, how they’re doing, etc., when Mom stands up from her seat and goes into the kitchen without saying where she’s going or what she’s doing.
If we check in with each member of the family in that moment, you might find the Dad worrying that Mom didn’t like the meal he made, and thinking that she has left the table in disgust. We might also find one of the children worried that she has hurt Mom’s feelings by telling her she had so much fun that day hanging out at the neighbor’s house. And the other child might think Mom is mad at him for getting a “B” on his math test.
A moment later, Mom returns to the table with salt. She sits down and continues to enjoy the meal with her family.
Now, imagine how much worry/misunderstanding/concern might have been avoided if Mom had casually said, “I’m going to run to the kitchen and grab the salt,” before getting up from the table? Mom didn’t think she needed to share this small detail, and assumed that by leaving quietly (not in a huff and not slamming the door behind her), it would be understood that there was no problem; she just needed something from the kitchen. Implicit communication is when we communicate without words—it might be tone of voice, gestures or actions. Explicit communication, however, is limited to directly what we say.
We often create stories surrounding those we love based on our own histories with them and with other people. So if you’re finding there are a lot of miscommunications happening in your relationship, one tip that might help could be communicating explicitly with your partner how you’re doing with more regularity, especially when you’re not feeling well, having a hard day or feeling frustrated. Our partners may misread the cues that we give off when we’ve had a hard day at work and think it means we’re upset with him/her. Instead, when coming in after a hard day at work, if you take the couple of seconds to let your partner know you had a tough day and you’re going to spend some time alone to take care of yourself, your partner will be less likely to take your behavior personally or misunderstand what’s happening.
There are a two simple rules to help ensure using explicit communication is helpful in your relationship:
Be honest with your partner. If you’re having a bad day, don’t lie and say nothing’s the matter. One caveat to this rule is that it doesn’t mean you have to tell your partner everything. Let’s say, for example, you had a bad day at work, but you aren’t in the mood to talk about it. The explicit conversation could be as simple as letting your partner know it has to do with work, but that you’d like to process what’s happened on your own first, and thank you for checking in but there’s nothing you need from them right now. That’s totally fair. You have explicitly let your partner know they don’t need to worry about you, and that they haven’t done anything wrong, while also protecting your own privacy (we’re allowed to have boundaries, even in our most intimate relationships!)
Believe your partner. See rule #1. If your partner says she’s fine, believe her.
Try to incorporate more explicit conversation into your relationship (especially in moments when you notice tension, confusion or stress) and see how it works for you! I’d love to hear in the comments what your experiences are.