Helene Brun

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By Helene Brun

In my previous article I wrote about how we ask for things from partners.  I suggested that asking from the point of “you owe me nothing”  is good for relationships.  This time I want to give some guidelines for communicating with your partner, after I say a little more about “you owe me nothing.”

It is a big order to take on “you owe me nothing.”  Because “I owe myself” is then also taken on.  You have to be very prepared to take care of yourself in life, should you fully  adopt these sentiments.  They are easily said and very difficult to live by.  Nobody does it perfectly.  The value and self esteem come from attempting to do it, seeing the progress, seeing yourself make the effort to be a stronger more capable person. 

Working on taking care of yourself and being in a close relationship bring self esteem even if you never do it perfectly.  If you do even some of that work, your life will be more interesting.  You will have less reason to leave your relationship because you begin to realize marriage is not what is going to save you...from boredom, from death...the small to the big.  It is not.  It is easier to stay because you have a life otherwise.  You have interests in life on your own regardless of who you happen to be with.  That takes pressure off the relationship.

One way to improve self esteem is to take reasonable, not reckless, risks in communication and behavior.  Fear is a signal that you have reached  a limit in yourself.   Heed that signal, think, then allow yourself to go ahead, after you look to both sides.  When you do take a careful risk, you will experience an increase in self esteem and freedom.  You will impress yourself as you make the effort to expand your world and become the kind of person you personally would like to be with.  You will enjoy your own company more whether you are with people or not.  You may surprise yourself and find a new curiosity about life and people.  If you have good enough self esteem to be compassionate with yourself, then you can allow yourself to take a few risks and thus expand your self concept. 

Keep updating the expectations of yourself:  “What am I , and am I not, willing to do?”  “How is this relationship working for me?”  “what have I done lately to improve things?”  Do not leave your partner out of the loop.  There may be things you could request for her/him to do, things he/she would want, or be willing, to do.  But give up the expectation that he/she should do anything.
Now those guidelines for good communication.

There are many ways to talk about communication skills.  Here is one way:
As the Speaker you should:    
                    1.  Know what you want to say
                    2.  Know how to say it effectively
                    3.  Know how to “hold on to yourself” no matter
                         what response you get.

To elaborate some on the above points:
1.  Self definition is critical, but you don’t have to know exactly what to say.  Before you start the conversation, have an idea and a clarity on essentially what you want to get across to your partner, or at least work on that clarity once s/he is listening attentively.  I-statements are sentences starting with I, for example:  “I think we should move,” or “I feel sad living here.”  Use I-statements to label feelings, thoughts, wants, and opinions as much as possible because they help you self-define, and they usually lower defensiveness in the listener.  You-statements, while they may be correct, tend to make the listener defensive.  They also remove you from self definition.

2.  Timing is important.  Consider the best time to bring something up by evaluating both what you know about your particular partner and what you know about people in general.  Example:  Your mate may not be a morning person and will not listen well if you choose to talk about an important issue then.  Example:  a survey in the 1997 “101 Men’s Health Secrets” by the editors of “Men’s Health” found that couples fight most often on Wednesdays and least often on Thursdays.  Be specific in what you say.  Do not blame or judge your partner, stick to describing how you experience the situation up for discussion.

3.  This is the grown-up piece of communication.  Develop a good sense of your own boundaries.  If you do not unravel the good work done by you  under 1. and 2. no matter how disappointing of a reaction you get at 3., you will be building a strong sense of self.  You will begin to trust yourself more as you realize that, no matter what your partner does, you do not have to argue or avoid.  This attitude can shift a relationship over time.  You, holding on to yourself, can result in the other changing.   Or, if you hardly ever get responses you can use, it will give you the data needed to eventually make an informed decision about whether to stay or leave the relationship.
What you say in your mind can help:  “We think differently and that is OK,”  “neither of us is a bad person,”  “he owes me nothing,”  “how can I invite him to want to help me?”  are examples of constructive inner statements to help you hold on to yourself. 

Holding on to yourself is important in a world we often cannot control.  It is important to take responsibility for yourself in a world we often do not necessarily understand.  Sometimes the best you can do is:  Stop worrying about whether s/he is going to abandon you or not come through for you.  Spend much more time focusing on whether you abandon yourself time and time again.  No matter what situation you are in, when you truly decide not to abandon yourself, but instead to deal consciously and caringly with the situation, things will begin to change.  It is what we can do.

Both the Speaker and the Listener create the experience of good communication.  The quality of the listening is as important as the quality of the speaking.
As the Listener  you should:    
                    1.  Know if you are willing to listen or not, and say it.
                    2.  Know how to listen effectively
                    3.  Hold on to yourself no matter what the Speaker brings up or how well s/he presents it.              

To elaborate on the listening points:
1.  If you say you will not listen now, follow up and say when you will.  Then remember that  promise.  If you say you will listen now, focus on it fully.

2.   Pay attention to the Speaker, be curious, ask questions, paraphrase.  If you listen to understand rather than to agree or disagree, you will be free to attend to the Speaker.  Think of initial conversations on an issue as data gathering and connecting with your partner, not as problem solving or determining who is “correct.”

3.  Work on containing your own feelings no matter what  you partner tells you.  When it is your turn, you can give your side of the situation.  Let yourself delay the gratification of telling your side.  It can be an emotional work-out , but it will make you stronger.  Trust that you will not abandon yourself.  Trust that you will not change your point of view unless it makes sense to you, but that you can be strong enough to hear the other out.  Develop your capacity to accept and respect differences.

Ultimately good communication comes from from capacity and willingness to take responsibility for yourself.  Do not expect the other to do that job for you.          

Do the best you can to make life reasonable for yourself and your partner.  Do the best you can to clean up things from your end as you go along.  So if you leave, if you must, you do not spend years agonizing over what you should and could have done. 

One way we grow our own self esteem is by being able to handle when life and others do not come through for us.  It is a big challenge for most of us, and you have to have compassion for yourself when you struggle with it, but it will eventually pay off in self efficacy.   If you have a partner that can and will listen to you that is wonderful.  Remember to acknowledge this directly.

Exceptional couples may make mistakes, argue, and hurt each other about as much as the rest.  People are people, not saints.  But “good” couples know how to go back regularly and clean up the messes they have made.  They can repair and apologize.  They can have a conversation and decide what to do about the mess while it is happening, or soon after, so it doesn’t go underground unexamined and unresolved

Nobody gets a perfect mate.  Nobody is a perfect mate.  By the time we meet our partners, we are all somewhat dented by life.  Just living as a human being, no matter how wonderful your parents were, will dent you up some.  We are limited as people in relationships, and as humans in the first place.  It is the human challenge that we are aware of ourselves and our limitations.  We can face that challenge with others, particularly in committed relationships, so we grow in consciousness and can deal directly with the predicaments of being human. 

Copyright 2000, Helene Brun.  All rights reserved.

Helene Brun, MFT    650.949.2879    helenebrun@sbcglobal.net    www.helenebrun.com 

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