Why do you two still get into petty spats? Subtle bad communication habits. Learn to break them like this.
By Jennifer Benjamin
You and your man may think you know each other inside and out. But even the most in-tune twosomes can slip up. Many couples unknowingly have bad communication habits,” says psychologist Steve Stephens, PhD, author of Lost in Translation. “They’re so subtle that often they don’t create conflict in the moment, but when they happen consistently, they can make partners feel less connected.”To avoid these pitfalls, you first have to recognize them. So we outlined five that are extremely common, even among the closest couples. Use our experts’ advice to prevent future conversational breakdowns... and reach a new level of bonding.
Mistake 1: Info Gets Left Out
Here’s a prime example of a couple conversation lapse: You mention to your guy that you’d like to plan dinner with friends next Thursday. You don’t, however, fill him in on where, what time, and exactly who’s coming. Not intentionally — just because when you’re part of a twosome, you tend to talk in a sort of shorthand. Essentially, you paint the broad strokes, subconsciously expecting your partner to be able to fill in the details. Of course, later, when he’s like “Huh, dinner?” you wind up getting pissed.
“The way couples speak to each other is very different from how they speak to friends,” points out Stephens. “They leave out key information simply because they’re so used to being together that they think of themselves as one entity or they figure that their boyfriend or girlfriend will understand them enough to get what’s unspoken. Then, when that doesn’t happen, feelings are bruised, people feel ignored… all sorts of problems arise.”
A relationship setback for sure, but once you’re aware of it, it’s easily fixed. First, be deliberate when you’re relaying important information to your guy — the way you would be if you were talking to anyone else. And when he tells you something, ask for the nitty-gritty instead of accepting the gloss-over. “With key stuff, have a conversation about it,” says psychotherapist Barton Goldsmith, PhD, author of Emotional Fitness for Couples. “Or even type it out in an e-mail so you know for sure you get all the details down.”
Mistake 2: Timing Is Off
Something all women need to know is that it’s nearly impossible to have a discussion with your guy when he’s in front of the TV. You may think that because he’s sitting there, he’s a captive audience, but nope, wrong. “Men can’t mentally multitask,” says Stephens. “When he’s watching TV, he gets sucked in by the visual stimuli. Essentially, the rest of his brain shuts down, so he can’t converse too.”
On the flip side, you may have noticed that your guy brings up serious topics right as you’re getting ready for work or maybe paying your bills online. It’s not that he’s oblivious to the fact that you’re busy; he’s actually kind of doing it on purpose. “Men are uncomfortable having deep conversations, so your guy will start one when you’re occupied with something else,” explains Stephens. “That way, you won’t be as focused on him.”
Predictably, picking the wrong time to chat usually takes a wrong turn. “The person being bothered becomes annoyed, and the person initiating the conversation feels dismissed,” says Beverly Hills, California, clinical psychologist Cara Gardenswartz, PhD. So a good plan of action is to ask <em>“Is this a good time to talk? I want to figure out if we should book that vacation or not.” Why the briefing? Goldsmith explains, “It’s important to add what it is you want to discuss so your partner can decide if it’s something that can wait or not.” If you do it enough, you’ll see that he’ll start to pick up the same talking habit. And if you’re angling for a serious conversation with him, try to pick a time when you’re both doing something mindless and without deep eye contact — like driving in the car or hiking or cooking. Because you’re casually involved in another activity, it’s a more relaxed, nonthreatening environment for him to open up.
Mistake 3: The Talk Reeks of Doom
In an attempt to soften a blow, women will often preface the conversation with “Okay, so don’t freak out” or “You’re not going to like this, but....” Come on, wouldn’t that put you on edge? “Instead of preparing him, it winds up stressing him out even more, setting off warning bells in his brain,” says Goldsmith. The reason it’s so hard to just dive right in and say what’s on your mind: “Women like to prepare for a problem, to warm up to it rather than abruptly tackle it, even with issues that aren’t that major,” explains Stephens. “But men hear it as a signal to gear up to get defensive, thus making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.” When he hears that disclaimer, he prepares to fight you, even if it’s just about borrowing his car to go to the store. Instead of jump-starting his heart attack with a statement like “Brace yourself for bad news,” try a gentler approach, like “This isn’t really a big deal, but would you be up for going to my grandma’s 80th birthday this weekend?” You’ll get a much more positive response.
Mistake 4: It Turns into a Monologue
It’s definitely frustrating: You’re telling your guy a story and, halfway through, his eyes glaze over and you know that he’s hit his mental mute button. It’s not that he doesn’t care about what happened when you went out last Saturday. It’s just that what your friends consider a standard-issue story comes across to him like a verbal tornado.
Put simply, he is not equipped for all the minor details. “Guys have a three-minute window where they can listen closely, but when your description goes on for longer than that, you’ve lost him,” says Stephens. “Then you inevitably end up getting mad at him for not paying attention to you or not chiming in.”There are two ways to combat this problem. First, be sensitive to the fact that he can only listen to you, uninterrupted, for so long. “Try to catch yourself if you start going on, and throw in a question to get him involved again — essentially rehooking him in,” suggests Stephens. “It’s easy for him to zone out when he’s just listening, but as soon as you engage him, he’s forced to be present in the conversation.” Also, touching his arm or leg as you’re talking is a physical way to connect with him and bring him back to the moment.
Mistake 5: There Are No Boundaries
Honesty’s a great thing in general, but it’s really overrated at certain times. Cases in point: You don’t actually want to hear that your dress makes you look heavy, and he could live without knowing that your number of ex-lovers is in the double digits. “Couples make the mistake of thinking that they have to learn everything about each other and share all their thoughts and have no secrets, but that’s simply not true,” says Stephens. “I call it reckless honesty when you’re revealing stuff that doesn’t have a constructive purpose and will do more harm than good.” And believe it or not, that includes your frustrations with each other. “Not all annoyances need to be addressed and dissected,” says Goldsmith. “Sometimes, bringing up a small temporary pet peeve will only serve to insult and offend your partner; it’s often best to try to deal.” So you hate his new sweater — whatever. He’ll get sick of it eventually. Really, just think about the greater good: a happy union where you get each other but not every teeny thing about each other.