In my counseling sessions with couples, I often hear a partner’s defensive and sometimes angry reply to his or her partner’s expression of hurt or disappointment. The perceived blame, taken personally, quickly turns into the issue, and the original event or issue gets lost in the proverbial shuffle.
If the communication comes across as an angry attack, a defensive and angry rebuttal seems understandable but less than helpful in processing the interaction. Rather than criticizing the partner, and saying things like “you always” or “you never”, the injured partner willl usually feel more understood if she approaches the situation by doing three things.
First, start with an “I statement” and explain how the particular behavior made YOU feel, for example, “When you interrupted me in the middle of my story, I felt dismisssed and not taken seriously,” instead of “Why do you always interrupt me?”
Second, acknowledge your partner’s lack of awareness and lack of intention to be hurtful, for example, “I can imagine that you didn’t intend to hurt my feelings,” or “I know you wouldn’t intentionally want to make me feel dismissed.” This usually helps your partner feel less blamed and “safer” in your moment of communication. It will also tend to foster a desire to come “closer” to you, to want to really hear you and give you more of what you are asking for.
Third, try to make a REQUEST rather than a CRITICISM. For example, “I know you probably don’t realize how it throws me off for the day, so next time I’m rushing to get out the door, could you please wait until I get home before telling me about all our unexpected expenses?” or “I would really appreciate it if you let me know when you are planning to work late so I could meet up with a friend for dinner.” This focus on the future can serve to minimize blame for past behavior. In addition, it requires the injured party to take responsibility for expressing how he or she wants to be treated. Last, and perhaps most importantly, making a request rather than a complaint helps leave things on a forward-looking, positive note, rather than getting stuck in past disappointments.
If this style of communication becomes habitual, the couple’s emotional environment will generally feel safer and more fluid. Fewer hurts will get swept under the carpet, and both partners will get more of what they want for themselves as well as for each other!