I was out with my yoga studio friends this weekend when, naturally, the topic of work came up. A woman asked me what I did. I explained I was a Mindful Relationship Coach, and she became noticeably excited. I’ve seen this look before and knew it was time for a Q & A. To many of us, relationships are the most puzzling, exciting, frustrating, exhausting, fulfilling, emotional, and confusing aspects of our lives. It’s where we truly learn about ourselves while very often feeling completely powerless in the process.
My yoga friend asked me an interesting question, “What, in your professional opinion, is the most common challenge people face in relationships?” The answer, of course, was easy and probably no surprise to many of us: communication!
In general, women like to think of their partners as mind readers, as though the person they’ve chosen as their partner has innate telepathic abilities. They also have an idea, a map in their minds, of precisely how they think their partners should behave; what it is they should say or do, without ever actually communicating any of these assumptions directly. Compounding matters further, we then become angry and resentful when our partners don’t do or say exactly what we expect them to. Thinking about this rationally, is there really any question why over fifty percent of marriages end in divorce? I speak from personal experience here when I say that the telepathic communication approach – hoping your partner will understand your needs and wants without your guidance, and then becoming outraged when they don’t – does not work! It is not an effective communication strategy. If these relationship challenges are left unaddressed, if their existence is denied and not given attention, they can be the source of constant conflict, hurt feelings, and endless cycles of disappointment. But there is hope! There is a solution!
This is a topic that is particularly near and dear to my heart, having had to work through and overcome so many of my own “bad” or unhelpful habits that relate to how to behave in a romantic partnership.
Case in point, I was living in Los Angeles with my then partner when we decided to incorporate making smoothies to bring to work into our morning routines. I ordered a blender online and could not wait for it to arrive! When I next saw my partner, I couldn’t wait to tell him that I had gone ahead and ordered the blender. His response, “Ok, cool,” with a brief head nod of acknowledgement.
Now, what I really wanted him to do was to not only acknowledge this as an amazing self-care decision, but also to take charge and surprise me by coming home with an impressive display of organic fresh fruits and veggies, maybe some Manuka honey and almond milk, and, maybe why not, throw in a smoothie recipe book too. Naturally, of course, I didn’t communicate that though. I just wanted him to know that he should do that or want to do that for me. I wanted him to show his devotion, his love in the perfect expression of how I think he should know he should. I mean isn’t it obvious anyway that when I said, “I ordered a blender” this is what I really meant?
Why, you ask, didn’t I just ask for what I wanted? Why did I need to play this game of mental telepathy? Well, what I didn’t know then that I do now is that I had been programmed from childhood on how to be “good woman” – in part, that meant it was too much for me to ask for what I had hoped. It was unfair to ask him to take time from his day to go out and get me what I wanted. It also made me feel vulnerable, opening the door for him to say “No”! Then I’d feel rejected after being really excited about my blender. The truth is there are all sorts of reasons, so instead I did what most of us do naturally. I just kept reminding him my blender was arriving soon! My rational, of course, was that maybe through the cosmic magic of the universe, he’d figure it out. “Babe, my blender comes tomorrow”. “Don’t forget to look out for my package, it comes today”.
And yes, I am sure it’s not much of a surprise to any of you that he didn’t figure it out. He was unable to decipher my code. There would be no almond milk, no cute smoothie recipe book. Only a perplexed look on his face in the days to follow the arrival of the blender when I inevitably gave him the cold shoulder, seemingly for no reason from his perspective. Just another check in the “women are crazy” box for him.
A few weeks later an argument over drinking the last of the milk ironically prompted me to let him into what was going on in my head. I told him how he fell short, once again, in the ethers of my delusional world or how he should just know to be. He just died laughing and said, “Oh my God, that’s what you wanted? I kept wondering what the big deal was with this blender.” As our relationship deepened he did begin to pick up on my subtle little cues (obvious to me of course), and got better at understanding my “ways” of communicating in our relationship. For example, another common one thing I would say was, “do you want a Quesadilla from Urth café”?” which really meant, “I want a bubble tea so hopefully you are hungry and will order something, so you buy me a bubble tea too”. So in time he learned to ask, “Molly, would you like me to get you a bubble tea?” and then happiness ensued. We learned to speak each other’s language and because we both had enough play and love for each other we had fun in the process. It became a game of him learning to deepen his intuition and he was often right. He’d say “You know, I had a feeling about that”, or “I knew I should have asked about that.” For me his willingness to make the effort to understand me satisfied most of what I was really after in the first place! His attention! Someone willing to pay close attention.
In many ways this is what intimacy is really about.
So, for the men reading, I am sure dealing with the idiosyncrasies of women can often feel insane. “Why can’t you just ask for exactly what you want?!!” As frustrating as this may be, these little subtleties, the nuances in our romantic relationships are the backbone of intimacy, connection, and the fun and play that comes along with learning each other’s language! This is what makes the experience of a relationship what it is. If we had it all figured out we’d just be boring robots.
For the women reading, I bet you have lots of secret code for things you want and need. So how can we all get what we need by coming a little closer to center and doing so in a fun and playful way?
For the sanity of everyone, I’ve compiled some “hacks” to help you through challenging relationship communication spots when they come up.
1. Incorporate play
Sometimes when a situation seems “do or die,” the best thing to diffuse emotions can be play and humor. It may feel like an incredibly risky move when emotions are high and it seems endlessly complicated to poke at something that is very serious. But the fights I’ve been in that were resolved became that way because my partner and I could step outside the situation, stop taking ourselves so seriously, and find a way to laugh. Men, this will often be your role. When there’s an opportunity, take it. Warning: this requires being attuned to your partner and never coming across as condescending or resentful. If you offer communication with love, with a little more levity than is being experienced in the situation you’re in, you may be surprised to see what ensues. It may look something like this: You: “You’re a terrible boyfriend who never does anything I ask!” Him: “Oh? I’m the world’s worst boyfriend? Okay, I agree. And what do you hate about me most?” Try it 😉
2. Take the attention off of yourself
We’re feeling beings. We almost always know when someone is present or checked out when we’re engaging with them. In a relationship, it’s especially important to trust that your partner loves and cares about you, that she isn’t going anywhere and is committed to making the partnership work. If you can create this trust as your baseline level of connection and commit to believing her, your head won’t be polluted with doubt, fear, and chatter that you’re not good enough, that she doesn’t love you, that she’s going to break up with you and leave you for her coworker she always talks about, etc. When your mind is constantly being filled with those voices, you’re not present and you can’t feel each other. Decide you’re a worthy and capable partner from the start and the attention you’re able to provide to her will expand, will have her open, and express more than you knew was possible.
3. Listen to your body
Again, we are feeling beings. We can feel when something doesn’t land or wasn’t received in the intended way. Listen to how you feel when you’re communicating with your partner. Does it feel open, easy, in flow, or is there a charge or residue from perhaps a previous discussion that wasn’t properly concluded? Trust this and offer, “Did something I say earlier upset you? Is there anything on your mind? Do you need anything from me?” Trust what you feel and extend yourself to identify it. We don’t always have words for what’s going on, but don’t be afraid to venture into potentially difficult territory by doing the best you can. What’s on the other side is more intimacy and connection. Be willing to say the uncomfortable thing and you’ll almost always be rewarded. Be willing to risk for the connection.
4. Remember everyone is trying their best
When we come from a place of love, compassion, and empathy, things have a way of working out for the better. To the best of your ability, try to remember that your partner is their own person, with their own unique flaws and experiences that made them who they are and that got them here. They have various skills and challenges and their own set of voices in their head running all the time. They’re trying their best, given the tools they’ve been taught or given. Assume the best in them and make it your goal to help them win with you. Be as clear as you can when you can, and when you can’t, come back to a connection with vulnerability and honesty about where you were coming from and what you need. Ask them to do the same for you. Sometimes everyone needs a reminder of, “I love you and I’m doing my best.”
5. Be curious
It can be difficult to stay conscious during heated or challenging arguments or discussions. As a follow-up to #3, listen to your body and always stay curious. Use your focused attention to ask questions and learn what’s going on for your partner. If you’re tuned in and find yourself genuinely curious about a certain statement, comment, trust yourself and ask about it! Perhaps there was an answer that landed a certain way in your body. You might ask something like, “What just happened there?” “What did you mean by that?” A bonus note is to always ask permission before asking a question. Say, “Can I ask something?” and then follow up with what you want to know more about. Remember, if you’re coming from a place of connection and love, and that they’re doing their best, it will come across in your communication and open spots that might have previously been an impasse or stuck place.