In my work providing counseling for couples of all kinds (M-W, W-W, M-M), I find that the partners frustrate themselves all too frequently by falling into certain common traps that impair communication. These are some of the ones I see; the “roles” that you want to avoid in order to have productive communication:
“The Swami” – This is when you think you know what your partner is thinking, when really you don’t. “He’s not taking out the trash often enough because he’s just lazy and thinks I’m his slave.” In reality, perhaps he’s depressed and unmotivated, and needs to discuss some depressing circumstances. Maybe instead of condemnation, he needs support and some suggestions for help. Check it out before making assumptions.
“Negative Nancy” – This can be a female or a male! This is thinking, “He didn’t call me the day after our date, so he must not be interested. I’m no good at dating.” Perhaps he was just busy and he will call you in several days. Or, you could call him and suggest something fun to do. Don’t assume.
“The Nun” – This is when someone sees everything in black-and-white, right or wrong, sinner or saint terms. In reality, our partners are usually some of both. “She’s always late,” for example, when perhaps she’s only late some of the time. Accepting and loving your partner and “living life on life’s terms” means they are going to have traits that annoy you — Try to overlook them in favor of their good traits.
“The Drill Sargeant” — This is when a partner gets anxious when things don’t go exactly as they want, and they expect their partner to capitulate to them even on small matters. Being in a relationship means compromise — meaning, there are times when you have to tolerate not being in control, no matter how much it hurts, in exchange for other times when you get your way. It’s give-and-take, 50/50. Otherwise, you can be 100% in control — and single.
“The All-or-Nothing” — This is when a partner is either too dependent on a partner’s time and attention, or not at all — taking all the responsibility, or all of the blame. Either extreme causes imbalance in the relationship. You can support a partner who is trying to cope with a drug or alcohol problem, for example, but you have to let him take responsibility for his own recovery, and set limits on what behaviors you will tolerate. This is especially important in a couple with an open relationship — there might be lots of latitude in terms of sex with others, but there must be agreed-upon rules and agreements to preserve dignity and respect in the primary relationship. Avoiding the all-or-nothing usually involves lots of negotiation on the finer points—-sometimes couples counseling can help “mediate” the differences and forge an agreement.
Too often, relationships break up because they don’t have the resources and support to develop the skills the partners need to overcome certain common challenges. Old fears and past family-of-origin experiences bear an important role on current relationships, and often we might find ourselves re-enacting conflicts we watched our parents have. It takes work to be aware of behaviors we were taught through behavioral modeling and learn our own, new ways of relating.
Relationships are a lot of work, but they can be very rewarding. Being aware of the negative communication roles YOU tend to play most often is the first step to not letting them undermine your relationship. Your own individual therapy can help you identify your worst habits and work to change them, and couples counseling can help you to learn how to respond and negotiate dealing with your partner’s. When your relationship is loving, functional, and happy, that helps a lot to Have the Life You Want!