We all know communication is key in relationships and once you’ve spent a few years together, we all tend to get comfy and start falling into patterns that aren’t putting the care and feeding of our relationship at front and center.
All long-term relationships take time and effort. While that’s not new advice, the truth is, if a couple isn’t actively working on how their relationship is growing, then each individual will eventually grow right out of it. To further the growth in a relationship, each person needs to be open to feedback, learn (or relearn) new ways to communicate and discover how to balance the needs of each person in the relationship as it changes over time. This is easier said than done.
Below are my “second-level” communication tips, taken from my 10+ years of couples counseling, on how to truly communicate better in long-term relationships:
Stop Saying “I Feel Like.”
Recently, I binge-watched an entire season of “The Real L-Word,” (a guilty pleasure). Every other sentence was prefaced with “I feel like…” “I feel like she’s evading me… I feel like she’s really not into me… I feel like…. I feel like…. I feel like….” It got so ridiculous, that I started a (non-alcoholic) drinking game with my kids! In ONE episode, we counted 54 times that they said, “I feel like.” Yikes!
When you use the phrase, it gives you an out.
You’re not stating a fact so much as giving an opinion. A variety of stories from the New York Times highlight this – “It’s an effort to make our ideas more palatable to the other person,” says Natasha Pangarkar, a senior at Williams College. And here is the rub: “I feel like” masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks. “It’s a way of deflecting, avoiding full engagement with another person or group,” Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, a historian at Syracuse University, said, “because it puts a shield up immediately. You cannot disagree.”
When you say, “I feel like…” You’re saying, “I think…
Women are conditioned to believe our ideas/opinions/thoughts will not be taken seriously, we conceal them behind a phrase like, “I feel like…,” seemly softening the “blow” of our statement. Decide for yourself and in all of your relationships that you will actively fight against this tendency and here’s how:
Replace “I feel like…” with “I think.”
- I THINK you’re evading me.
- I THINK you’re not that IN to me….
- I THINK we should relocate.
Or, another good example:
From this: “I feel like we should cancel our Wednesday meetings so we have more time to focus on our projects.”
To this: “We should cancel our Wednesday meetings so we have more time to focus on our projects.”
How to Construct a Useful “I Statements”
Ok, while saying “I feel like…” is bad, using a FEELING WORD is good.
Let me explain: When someone else’s behavior triggers an emotion in us (annoyance, frustration, irritation, etc), we have a tendency to blame them for that feeling. “I’m so ANNOYED that you always leave your dirty coffee cup on the counter. ” A BETTER way to express yourself is by using a well-crafted I Statement that allows you to take responsibility for your feelings AND convey to your partner something that’s bothering you.
For example, you might find yourself saying this, “Why is your coffee cup on the counter? Why couldn’t you put in the dishwasher? You work from home all day, so how is it that it’s SO HARD to clean up after yourself?!”
A better way to address the issue is with a well-constructed “I Statement.”
How to Construct A Better “I Statement:”
Use this “I Statement Template” when wanting to express yourself:
I feel _____________ [list of feeling words here] about __________________________ [statement of objective observation] because I ______________________________.
Using this structure, you might say, “When YOU leave your coffee cup on the counter, I FEEL ANXIOUS because I have an irrational need to control the cleanliness of my surroundings and your coffee cup disrupts that! I appreciate that you work from home and you didn’t put that coffee cup there on purpose, can we come to a happy medium?”
Do you see the difference? The second phrase shows responsibility for one’s feelings, gives space for negotiation and allows the partner to respond instead of being attacked.
We can all take responsibility for our feelings by using that phrase. No one ever does anything TO US that makes a feel a certain way. We are choosing to feel a certain way about things because of expectations, upbringing or any number of variables.
Reconfirm Your Relationship Expectations
Having a realistic expectation of the relationship is another area that people commonly need to evaluate. A simple example: One partner may want their significant other to go to social events with them, even if that partner is not interested. Additionally, this same partner needs someone who will attend important holidays and the other partner wants nothing to do with this activity.
While individual relationship situations may vary, the overall difference here is that WANTS are areas where one may compromise, but NEEDS are a must in a relationship.
Expectations change over time, so my suggestion: Write specific behaviors that you need or want under each of these categories, to better illustrate your expectations. Be very specific: I want my partner to always attend social/work functions with me. I need her to make herself available for holidays, etc so that we are team during the holidays and do not have to brave them alone.
That is a very specific, attainable, expectation. Now, if the partner can’t attend to that expectation, THAT is another blog post…
Creating a list and discussing it with your partner can help you open up the communication about what is important to you in the relationship (right now) as well as allow learning what your partner needs in turn.
Actively Listening: You May Need to Sit On Your Hands
Couples that listen to each other feel more connected and understood. This means using body language to convey that you are interested, such as leaning in when they’re speaking, making eye contact, and using the technique of “mirroring” in which you repeat what your partner just said so they know you’re digesting what they’re saying. Jack Rosenblum, Ph.D., co-author of “Five Secrets of Marriage from the Heart,” suggests that to make your partner feel understood may require sitting on your hands, rather than providing advice when your partner needs to talk. The true art of listening is not talking over your partner or for them, but allowing them the space to vent without judgment or running commentary.
If You Don’t MAKE Time, You Can Never HAVE Time
Schedule couple time on a regular basis: Happy Couples regularly share common interests or hobbies together. By setting aside a few hours once a week, couples then have the chance to connect in a positive space. Dr. Howard Markham, co-author of Fighting for Your Marriage states, “Early on in a relationship couples talk as friends, they do fun things; But, over time, those ways of connecting change.” Bringing back fun into a relationship can work as an anti-aging serum, that re-sparks the sense of fun that made the relationship start in the first place. Many studies suggest that by doing activities that bring a sense of excitement, can make couples rate each other as more attracted to each other as well. Other suggestions for activities may include sharing a physical activity (walk, hike, ride bikes) which can keep relationships feeling uplifting, especially when faced with the daily stress of work and finances that can erode the sense of fun in a relationship.
Sex is Your Friend: Twice a Week is All You Need
Numerous studies confirm that couples who prioritize sex twice a week, report feeling higher levels of satisfaction. ? While that sounds like a no-brainer, couples in long-term relationships know how easy it is to let their sex life diminish over time – especially lesbian couples. Lesbian Bed Death aside, sex is what makes you a couple and not housemates.
How To Keep The Spark Alive: Stop Doing Everything Together
The key to keeping the spark alive goes against the very nature of every lesbian couple: Distance. Always being with your partner stops real connection from occurring. Therapist and author Esther Perel points out in Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, “… Love seeks closeness, but desire needs space to thrive.” According to Perel, creating some emotional and physical distance in your relationship can inject a little mystery and curiosity, which serves to inspire passionate desire and help you stay together. What initially drew us to our partners was their uniqueness, their passion, and their talent. Space in a relationship allows room for individual development. Each partner needs to reclaim their individuality and sexual, erotic selves, independent of the other.
Think about your partner as someone you desire and someone you want to entice to fall in love with you over and over again. Make an effort to spend time away so you can “miss” each other and create space that yearns to be filled with more sex ?
If you want something, ask for it! This might seem obvious, but sometimes we get so comfy with how things are in our relationship, that we forget. Ever feel unappreciated in the relationship and wish that your partner would do acts of love for you? Sometimes we may sit back and wait and see how long it takes for them to do that specific behavior, other times we may tell everyone else what we want but not the direct person we’re dating. The point here is to tell your partner directly what you would like.
For example, if you want your mate to plan a date, ask her to do it! You could use a really good I Statement to make your case: I would really like it if you planned a date for us, that includes a surprise because I’m feeling really disconnected from you lately and I’d like to spend some non-work/kids/quality time with you.
If you make a request and weeks have gone by with no action, address the topic again in a direct manner. You might say, “Hey so, I mentioned a how I would love it if you would plan a date and it hasn’t happened — I was wondering if you’ve thought about it.” This gives your partner a chance to explain.
I’ve worked with many people that say they don’t like to request what they want because they want it to come from their partner on their own. The truth is we are not mind-readers and you are more likely to get your needs met by making requests versus keeping a silent grudge.