Phil, an optometrist by day and married for 43 years, often felt challenged when he got home after a long day in the office.
He’d been talking with patients all day, and his wife, Pam, had been working on her computer or in her design studio in isolation all day. Pam, of course, welcomed the company and was eager to converse as Phil walked in the door. But Phil was hoping for some alone time to unwind.
“She feels sometimes that the silence is passive/aggressive or something is going on with me,” Phil confessed. “She loves to probe, and I don’t like to be probed.”
I’m sure you can already imagine the conversation that typically ensues for this couple—and after speaking with them, obvious that it wasn’t satisfying for either one of them. Although initially I thought the problem may just be a timing issue—Phil needing down time at the very moment Pam was eager to connect—I knew there might be more to the situation. To get to the root of their conflicting needs, I asked Phil about his comfort level with communication.
At the office, Phil had no problem talking with his patients and often wound up talking about other issues in their lives during their appointments. “I find it much easier for some reason to listen to them and to show compassion toward them. It’s just part of being a doctor, and it’s a big part that’s often lost with doctors. I don’t do that.” He confessed how much easier it was to talk about someone else’s problems than to talk about his own issues or emotions.
Physical discomfort in their bodies is one of the biggest reasons that people shut down their communication, even with their significant other. If you’re willing to go into the unknown and sit in the uncomfortable feelings for a few minutes—even when you don’t know what to say—the discomfort can become an advantage that actually helps you and your partner get clear and reconnect.
First, pay attention to how your body talks to you.
If you feel resistance when your partner starts a conversation with you…
- Where do you notice the physical sensation in your body?
- Does your throat get dry or your palms sweaty?
- Does your stomach churn or your heart start racing?
These physical signals are not just annoying experiences without purpose. They are your body’s first internal clues to tell you something’s off and you need to pay attention. You might be moving outside your comfort zone. Fear or pain or apprehension might be rising. It might be signalling that something in your external world is triggering you in your internal world. Honor this early messenger. It might be uncomfortable, but it has arrived to deliver valuable information.
Second, notice the thoughts that are running through your head.
- Are you blaming the other person or yourself?
- Are you making up stories in your head that might not even be true?
- Are you genuinely curious?
Third, identify the emotion(s) you’re feeling.
Are you exhausted, worried, afraid, hurt or stressed?
Fourth, tell your significant other what’s happening.
That is all anyone who loves you wants to hear because it’s the truth. For example, “You know what? I just felt my mouth get dry and my palms get sweaty. I’m used to being in control, having the answer and being able to do what I do well. Right now, I’m feeling anxious, because I’m outside my comfort zone.”
Fifth, ask for what you need.
You may need time or space to mentally process your emotions or restore your energy. “I need some time to decompress. How about we come back together in 30 minutes, and I’ll be ready to talk?”
Sixth, ask if that would work for your partner.
Acknowledge that you see they want to connect with you and have a conversation. Tell them you appreciate their interest in your life. And be curious about how you might be able to best support them.
If, like Phil, you avoid communication in one area of your life because you’re uncomfortable, over time, that neglected area—and your partner—will not be satisfied. You will continue taking what I call a short-term high and end up with a long-term low in your relationship. Whereas, now you can choose the short-term discomfort in order to create a solid and lasting love.
Ask yourself, do you want to feel the pain of death by paper cut (as in 43 years of someone telling you that you don’t communicate) or would you like to endure a little discomfort to have the long-term high of connection, love and satisfaction in your relationship? Your move.