The First Step In Communicating With Your Partner
By Moraya Khan, Marriage & Family Therapist, San Francisco
When your partner approaches you with one of those seemingly innocent but “loaded” questions, like “What are we doing tonight?” you may wonder, “Uh-oh! What’s coming?” Past experience has made you wary that there may be lot more lurking behind the question, and a wrong response could end the evening badly.
A sense that there’s a question-behind-the-question may be spot on. A deer-in-headlights feeling confirms this. Is your first instinct to grapple with “What is the right thing to say?” then fumble for an appropriate response?
Strategizing what to say as your first move presents a huge, potential pitfall. Saying something without knowing where your partner is coming from when s/he approaches you risks miscommunication and misunderstanding. If you bypass the step of knowing the question-behind-the-question, this can lead to mindreading, guessing, or making assumptions. If these are incorrect or distorted, which is sometimes the case, the interaction is most likely headed off to a bad start.
The Question-Behind-the-Question: Three Need-Themes
Understanding what influences your partner to ask the question is the vital first step to communicating, before you say a word! The motivation behind a question or comment falls broadly into three categories that I call need-themes. They are: (1) asking for advice/problem solving, (2) seeking emotional validation/assurance, and (3) wanting more connection. Themes #2 and #3 may blend occasionally, but theme #1 is separate and distinct from the other two need-themes. Unfortunately, most responses assume #1 as the need-theme behind the question, and giving advice when it is not asked for will most likely frustrate and irritate your partner. You may already have experienced this.
Seeking Advice (Need-Theme #1) is Typically Not the Motivation
Here is a scenario to illustrate need-themes. Your partner comes home frustrated after a job interview and laments, “I think the interview went badly. I was really counting on this one. I don’t know what I should do next.”
Doesn’t this sound like a cry for help--for advice? You are eager to give a helping hand and to share your chock full of tips regarding job hunting, to provide guidance and direction to your spouse who seems lost. Let’s play this out, with you assuming that your partner was seeking your input. With the best of intentions, you offer a series of suggestions of what s/he may do next, done with the spirit of a pep talk to boost her/his crestfallen spirits. But alas! This response is met with hostility: “I don’t need your advice!” and s/he stomps away in a huff. You are left stunned at the rejection of your goodwill, maybe even angry at being so unappreciated for your reaching out. The next interaction will probably not be a good one, as now, there are two parties feeling unmet and misunderstood by the other.
What went wrong? If the need-theme was not #1 (seeking advice), and you gave advice, your partner is likely to feel that you think they are incompetent and in need of rescuing. S/he is already feeling inadequate and dejected, so your job-hunting suggestions can easily be misread as blame for the interview going badly, and that what s/he did was not good enough. Their own negative self-judgment can easily be projected on to you in their state of distress.
A useful rule to remember: Seeking advice (need-theme #1) is typically not the motivation, unless it is explicitly requested.
Need-Theme #2: Seeking Emotional Validation
Let’s say your partner is motivated instead by need-theme #2 (seeking emotional validation and assurance). They have left a situation with a sense of failure, where initial high hopes are dashed with a letdown. Understanding this, you reach out and exclaim: “Oh Honey! That’s terrible the interview went badly! I am so, so sorry! You must be feeling devastated, crushed! You were really counting on this to work out. What a blow this must be for you! Do you want to talk about it?”
With such a caring and empathetic response that recognizes and acknowledges their feelings, s/he will most likely open up to you. Notice how you mirrored their state verbally, imagining what they must be feeling. Notice that you did not attempt to reassure them by contradicting the claim that the interview “went badly,” (an unsolicited opinion). You validated your partner’s emotional state, which can make her/him feel seen, met and understood by you. This heartfelt response to need-theme #2 is deeply reassuring and soothing to someone suffering from the insecurity of self-doubt and self-blame. With need-theme #2 in play, there is no need to make suggestions or “fix” anything to make things right, which is the problem-solving mode of need-theme #1. So that pressure is off! Just being an understanding presence for your partner is all that is required for the occasion.
Need-Them #3: Wanting More Connection
Let’s say that your partner is not being plagued by self-doubt or self-blame about the job interview (maybe the interviewer was inept), but instead, is feeling lonely and isolated with this setback. What s/he may be wanting is not reassurance that s/he is OK or did well, but a sense of connection, a feeling of togetherness with you that comforts them that they are not alone in their struggle.
When you ask, “What happened?” or “Do you want to talk about it?” s/he may be too upset to discuss her/his experience or feelings. S/he may feel remote and separate from you in their state. A simple outreach might be a wordless hug, or deep, heartfelt eye contact. Words might be expressed to communicate that you are in this together, and that s/he has your full support in traversing this difficult time. With need-theme #3, a deep sense of closeness, partnership and steadfast support from you is what is yearned for. Like need-theme #2, there is no requirement for you to fix things or make things better.
Need-Themes Are Not Obvious
People are not usually in touch with what they truly need, and even much less, have the confidence to ask for it. Emotional needs are often experienced as vulnerabilities, carrying the risk of being rejected and/or humiliated, and may hold a personal stigma of being too dependent on others. Consequently, we tend to hide or mask our needs so we don’t come across as too “needy” or too dependent. This fear of dependency may go so far as hiding our needs even from ourselves, so we become unaware of what we truly want. Need-themes may camouflage themselves in diverse, unpredictable ways, such as anxiety, indifference, caring for something else (proxies), entitled demands, anger, blaming, spinning into irrelevant thoughts, and denial that the need exists. These are the most common defense mechanisms against need-themes.
Uncovering the Need-Theme
Considering this complexity, the need-theme behind your partner’s questions, requests or comments will probably not be easily recognizable. Once you become aware of the presence of need-themes—that is gigantic step forward! The next challenge will be to decipher them.
How do you discern the correct need-theme behind your partners question, request or comment? The simplest way is to ask your partner.
“Are you asking for my advice/opinion?” (need-theme #1) Get confirmation with this question instead of assuming advice is wanted.
“Are you feeling _____ about [the problem]?” (need-theme #2) Discern and acknowledge the feeling.
“Would it help if I gave you a hug?” (need-theme #3) Or just embrace them, or make contact.
“Are you feeling alone and separate in this time of difficulty?” (need-theme #3)
“How can I be here for you?” (need-theme #3)
”Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?” (probing for need-theme #2 or #3)
These are a few examples of exploratory questions that will pave the way to discovering which need-theme is in play. This requires a lot of skill and practice, but acquiring this relational competency paves the way for more successful and mutually satisfying communication. If you are still left wondering about the need-theme in play, it’s a safer bet to assume need-themes #2 or #3, rather than #1.
You Can Improve Communication With Your Partner!
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