We often say things we don’t mean when we’re arguing with a partner. There’s a tendency, when “fighting” for emotions and thoughts to come out during the argument with the intention of hurting the other person. That can damage a relationship, making it weaker and even harder to work through your problems.
Still, it’s not just what we say. It’s also the way that we communicate our needs. For example, sometimes, when we’re upset, we have a tendency to focus solely on our partner’s perceived weaknesses and shortcomings. But adopting this black and white mentality in the conversation also makes it much harder to communicate in a way your partner will listen.
Our Tendency to Be Defensive
Very, very few things in this world are always/never. For example, a partner that “never” washes the dishes has probably washed the dishes before. A partner that “always” plans every birthday party has probably, at least once, not planned a birthday party.
But in arguments, we tend to speak in this black/white, always/never way. When speaking on a sensitive topic, we often act as if our partner has no strengths, and has never contributed, and isn’t a valuable member of the partnership in any form. When we’re upset, we rarely speak to the partner in a way that recognizes the partner’s strengths.
However, this opens the door for the partner to become justifiably defensive. If you say your partner “never” cleans the house, and your partner does occasionally clean the house (even if it is not close to your own contribution), then they are going to shut down, create a defensive response, and likely refuse to listen to other parts of the conversation.
Even though the spirit of the criticism may be correct and important to you (feeling like your partner isn’t contributing), the introduction of this always/never language means that now, your partner has no reason to listen to what you are saying. It becomes categorized solely as a criticism and an insult.
Approaching with Kindness and Clarity
Speaking to your partner in a way that recognizes their strengths and treats them as a complex, multifaceted person that does bring something to your relationship is important. It will reduce defensive feelings in your partner, and help them be more receptive to your concerns, worries, and struggles.
Remember, it’s not only what you say. Sometimes, it’s the words that we’re using to say it, and the feelings that they invoke in the other person. When we want someone to be responsive to our needs, we have to make clear that we recognize what the other person brings to the table.