Communication between partners is harder when both people are hurting. WellNest co-founder and psychotherapist Zainib Abdullah guides us through how we can improve communication with our partners during the most difficult moments
Let's talk about communicating productively when we least feel like it.
It is very common to say things we don't mean or will later regret in heated moments of conflict. Comforting our partner and communicating with them when they have evoked a strong emotional reaction inside us is no easy feat!
In this situation, how do we talk to our significant others without hurting them? And how do we also honour our own feelings in that moment?
This post will provide a few tips on approaching conversation when both parties are feeling hurt. We based our tips on work done by The Gottman Institute, which takes a research-based approach to understanding and being in relationships.
Before we can discuss how to communicate when you least feel like it, let's discuss when we should temporarily walk away. Luckily, this isn't guesswork: our body gives us clear signs!
Listen To Your Body First
Have you ever been in the middle of a heated argument and realized that you are no longer hearing the other person?
This occurs because our physiology plays a huge role in conflict escalation AND resolution!
Fact: Our bodies can enter a phase of heightened arousal called Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA). When your body is in this state, your heart beat quickens, adrenaline starts pumping, and you enter a survival state (i.e. your fight or flight mode)
When we are in survival mode, our body's resources are directed towards keeping us safe. We are NOT in the optimal state to connect with others in this situation. This is in direct opposition to the goals of conflict resolution, which should aim to either bring us closer OR nearer to a better understanding of each other.
In a fight-or-flight state, some people may dig into the conflict, while others will choose to retreat and avoid it. Further, we can freeze and experience tunnel-vision and tunnel-hearing, where we cannot properly focus on or hear what the other person is saying.
None of these states are ideal for communication. On the flip side, they can all fuel further escalation and regret. This is why it important to notice when our bodes are in a state of overwhelm, so we can temporarily walk away.
So how do we know when we are overwhelmed and no longer in an optimal state for connection?
Our heart rate is a good indicator that we are overwhelmed and no longer have the capacity to communicate effectively. When our heart rate sits at or rises above 100 BPM, it means that we can no longer process that social interaction properly.
So if your heart is thumping, and you are having trouble focusing, it's a good sign to step away, calm your breathing, and come back when you are ready.
A state of 'flooding' or feeling overwhelmed, will look different for everyone! Tuning in to your body and knowing when you are approaching this state is important before the conversation becomes volatile. It can look like your skin getting red and blotchy, tears forming in your eyes, sweating profusely, feeling like you are shutting down, shaking etc.
Whatever that physical indicator is for you, when it occurs, try not to ignore it.
5 Tips To Communicate When You Are Both Feeling Hurt
When both parties are feeling raw and hurt, communication often takes place over time. You do not have to resolve the issue right there and then, especially if (as we mentioned above) the people involved are in a state of fight-or-flight.
This list also includes strategies to to thaw the tension and vary the conversation so it's not always about the conflict.
Let's get into it!
1. Avoid Competition
When we rank our feelings of hurt above our partner's, it gets in the way of every attempt at communication! We all experience hurt and stress differently. The way adversity affects us often depends on how we handled those feelings as children. Therefore, our reactions are not comparable on a one-to-one level.
Also, some of us can be deeply hurt but not let it show. This doesn't mean we are not struggling or won't feel invalidated if someone tries says "You think that was hurtful? Well, imagine what I'm going through!"
Remember, it's not a competition over who feels worse or carries more pain. Besides, it is much easier to communicate that we feel more deeply affected if we know our partner won't challenge us on this.
2. Approach The Damage
It is common for us to feel hurt by what our partner does, or fails to do. The most important skill couples will learn is how to repair this hurt! The first step involves gathering the courage to share your feelings, instead of letting the feelings stew and become worse. It's important to approach this conversation in a non-critical manner (i.e. don't attack them).
And be sure to listen openly and without getting defensive when your partner approaches you in a similar manner.
3. Look Beyond The Reaction
Everyone has triggers that lead to intense reactions. When conflict occurs in an explosive or unexpected way, it's often because we have touched a nerve in our partner that goes back to their past relationship experiences or childhood upbringing.
For example, if you are arguing about finances, try expressing your appreciation for why this is a particularly sore spot for them (i.e. "I get why this is hard for you, money was a difficult issue for you as a kid").
Looking beyond the reaction opens us up to understanding our partner's perspective. We should also be aware of our own triggers and the origins of our own intense reactions. It's much easer to explain something when you understand it yourself!
*Note: The type of conflict being referred to is not physical or emotional abuse. We encourage you to seek help if you are in a situation of abuse.
4. Try Different Types Of Conversation
The Gottman Institute recommends practicing the 'stress reducing conversation'. This type of conversation involves listening to each other's stresses for a certain amount of time (i.e. 30 minutes). In these 30 minutes, you spend half the time listening to your partner's feelings and they spend the other half listening to yours.
The goal of this conversation is not to problem solve! Instead, it is offering each other empathy, compassion, and understanding. When we feel heard and cared for, our feelings of hurt become more manageable. It also builds trust and encourages connection and closeness.
It is also important to make time for conversations that do not resolve around the conflict itself.
5. Listen To Understand
Listening to understand involves paying attention to what our partner is saying, rather than listening to reply or formulate a comeback. When you are thinking about your response before your partner is finished speaking, it divides your attention and makes it less likely that you will notice their body language and emotional cues.
If you get defensive during conflict and conversation, this can be a particularly helpful tip. When you feel yourself thinking of a response, bring yourself back to the present. It's okay if you don't have a response right away. Make it clear that you are trying to listen and may need a moment to respond.
I hope this piece helps you understand how to approach a conversation when you and your partner are both feeling hurt and upset. This isn't an easy state to be in. It is so important to have compassion for yourself and also your partner! Particularly if you are both trying to work towards connecting and repairing the damage.
Remember that the goal of any conflict should be to improve the situation and become closer! Let this principle guide you as you approach the conversation.
I want to hear from you: What helps you communicate with your partner when you are feeling hurt?
Until next time!