Effective communication is an essential part of a healthy relationship. However, it can be a difficult skill to master. A common style of communication that I frequently see in couples therapy is the attack-counterattack style. It is very destructive and creates distancing and animosity.
In attack-counterattack, one half of the couple begins with a complaint about his or her spouse or partner. For example, “You never want to spend any time with me. The only person you care about is yourself.” The spouse then counters the attack with a complaint of his own. “All you do is complain about everything when we go out anyway. So why would I want to spend time with you.” The tension usually escalates and becomes mean and hurtful. Neither partner is listening. While one person is talking the other is mentally preparing a comeback.
Defensiveness is a deeply embedded natural reaction. It comes from fear and shame and usually is an attempt to regain our self-esteem. Nobody wants to appear weak or look bad. In addition, we have social pressures that teach us that we must fight back. It is weak to let people walk on us. We have to stand up for ourselves and not get pushed around. These perceptions are pride-based and direct energy away from the relationship.
Many relationships have ended because pride got in the way and communication broke down. One solution is to move away from the attack-counterattack pattern into a solution focused style of communication. We can learn how to do this from the principles of martial arts.
Some martial arts are hard styles meaning they emphasize punching and kicking. The blows are direct and resistant. The goal is to incapacitate the opponent as quickly as possible or beat them into submission.
There are other styles that emphasize softer, circular movements. One of them is Aikido, which literally means Way of Harmony. The goal is to join or blend with the opponent's attack and find a way to bring beauty and harmony to the situation.
In terms of communication styles, the Aikido way would mean meeting an attack with acceptance instead of resistence. It would involve pulling along side of your spouse or partner instead of squaring off.
The first step is to recognize the attack as feedback. It is information about how the other person sees your behavior. Accept it as an opportunity to improve yourself and your relationship. It is an opinion, not the gospel truth. The fact of the matter is that there is some validity to the complaint even if it is minuscule or ridiculous. It is unhealthy and self-centered to take things personally, so toughen up a little and listen to what is being said.
The second step may feel counterintuitive, but it is amazing how it diffuses the tension and draws you closer to the other person. It involves agreeing with the complaint. For example, “You are absolutely right. I don't spend enough time with you and I avoid going out with you. I have behaved in a insensitive and selfish way.” This is not placating because we have all been guilty of insensitivity and selfishness at one time or another.
Then, validate the feelings. “You probably have felt rejected and hurt by my actions.” Next, invite more feedback and then focus on a solution. “Tell me more about how you have felt and what I can do to improve the situation.”
This type of communication requires humility and it can be challenging to learn, but the rewards are tremendous. Practice it and you will experience more harmony, openness, and trust in your relationships. Your spouse, partner or friend will feel safe with you and draw closer.