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3 Ways Couples Can Improve Communication

3 Ways Couples Can Improve Communication

Lesbian relationship expert Dr. Glenda Corwin gives practical advice for lesbian couples to help unpack frustrating dynamics in their communication.

Dear Dr. Corwin:
“We need to communicate better! We love each other, and talk all the time, but we never seem to get anywhere except mad… same old issues, no progress. Can you help?”

Recently I met the stereotypic communication couple. One (the Talker) was a college professor, very articulate and used to speaking in paragraphs. Her wife (the Listener) spoke mostly in phrases and short sentences, which worked well in her role as a stay-at-home of young children. Both were affectionate with each other, and obviously loved and admired each other. Both wanted to have better communication. An important principle to keep in mind is-we do the best we can with what we know. The professor’s work revolved around explaining concepts and skills. She was very good at imparting the knowledge that her students needed to master the material. She talked all day, and got great feedback from her students. Her wife listened all day, and it helped her be a wonderful parent. Her work was attending to others’ needs, doing domestic activities, keeping the household running smoothly, and juggling several tasks at the same time. It was rare for someone to actually listen to her. What was missing for both of these women was good, peer-to-peer conversations. Not surprisingly, the dynamic in the room with both of them sounded a lot like a mother and child: the professor over-explaining, her wife under-explaining and acquiescing.

This dynamic often leads to mutual frustration, resentment, and loss of emotional and sexual intimacy. Peer-to-peer just works better than parent-to-child.

This lovely couple illustrated the three most common self-defeating tactics in communication:
1. The Talker talks even more, in hopes that she will finally get her point across.

2. The Listener listens, then checks out, as she gets confused/bewildered/angry about the stream of consciousness coming at her. Like some say, “trying to drink from a fire hose… too much coming at you.”

3. Both lose sight of any positive goals for having this talk.

So here are three keys to better communication:
1. Talkers should talk less . Your verbal skills may help a lot in your work life, but it’s easy for you to overwhelm others and then they just start to avoid meaningful conversations with you. They probably already know what you want to say, since you’ve said it so many times.

2. Listeners should talk more . Your partner needs to understand you more, but she can’t read your mind. If she can give you space to speak, you need to step into it! If you claim your time to talk, you’ll be surprised at how the words will come to you.

3. Both of you need to focus on positive goals . Long rants of criticism and blame are not helpful. Talk about what you want, not what you don’t want. Criticizing is easy; coming up with the positive outcomes you want takes some mental work. Most people immediately agree with these three ideas. We all know listening is good, monopolizing is bad, and positive is better than negative. Makes complete sense, in the abstract. And of course, in a therapist’s office.

However, being human we get home and fall right back into our habitual patterns. This is why we recommend some kind of communication exercises, like Active Listening, Couples Dialogue, or Reflective Listening. Here’s an example of a communication exercise to try several times a week:

Set a timer for 15 minutes, let the Listener talk about herself, what she feels and wants, and have the Talker listen and paraphrase what she’s hearing; i.e., no comments, suggestions, or problem-solving. Just try to understand. And then she’ll let you have your time to be heard, but not until the next day. That allows time for everything to sink in, and avoids instant analysis which is not helpful. The Listener’s challenge is to fill the allotted time. Just stay with it, even if you’re sitting in silence. The challenge for the Talker may be to contain herself to 15 minutes.

Both of you can relax into this activity if you both know that it will not morph into an all-nighter. It also helps to know that neither of you has to go through a personality change in order to improve your communication. You just both need to change your talking and listening behaviors for a few minutes. It’s harder than it seems–but you’ll like how you’ll feel!

Glenda Corwin, Ph.D is a clinical psychologist who specializes in lesbian sexual issues. She is the author of Sexual Intimacy for Women: A Guide for Same Sex Couples (Seal Press, 2010). Dr. Corwin writes for the Huffington PostGay Voices, Epochalips.com, as well as her own blog on www.DrGlendaCorwin.com. She presents frequently at professional conferences, and is a regular guest on Barb Elgin’s LesbianLoveTalk radio program.

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