communications in relationships ellie burrows

Ever tried to share your feelings in a relationship, only to send your partner into a defensive tailspin? Maybe they misunderstood… or maybe all they could hear was criticism. Relationship expert Ellie Burrows shares her wisdom on the basics of truly honest communication in relationships, the secret weapon of accountability and the art of complaining without blame…

Everyone talks about “feels.” But it’s become increasingly obvious that very few people actually know what they are. Here’s what I mean.

Often I hear people say things like:

“I feel like you never spend time with me.”

“I feel like you don’t try to have sex with me.”

“I feel like you need to calm down.”

For the record, “you never spend time with me,” “you don’t try to have sex with me” and “you need to calm down” are not feelings. I repeat. Not feelings. Rather they are subjective observations with blame as subtext. Or in layman’s terms: criticism.

The word feeling is defined as an emotional state or reaction.

“I feel sad.”

“I feel rejected.”

“I feel anxious.”

Sad. Rejected. Anxious. Now those are feelings. Glad we cleared that up.

It’s October and wedding season is over (insert my big sigh of relief as I went to seven between June and August), but my photos from the photo booths aren’t my only takeaways from the celebrations. I sat through a total of 50+ speeches this summer and one thing was abundantly clear: The most common advice given to a bride and groom included knowing how to say you’re sorry and admitting when you’re wrong.

Accountability: the not-so-secret-secret to a successful relationship. The word itself is almost unsexy. The first part of it makes most of us think of someone sitting at a desk in April, papers piled high to the ceiling, a coffee stained shirt and sweat dripping down temples. And sure, number crunching is a pain in the ass, but I bet what’s really stressful for that person behind the desk is the responsibility that comes along with government compliance.

When it comes to lovers, accountability plays an important role. It’s all about taking personal stock and understanding how your behavior appreciates or depreciates the asset, the relationship. Basically, it’s about the art of owning your stuff, accounting for every messy piece of it. And this breed of bookkeeping is a requirement for meeting the terms and goals of the larger partnership.

Unfortunately, sometimes we get confused and we think that our partners and spouses are included in our “stuff.” In some ways, we try to own them, before we even own ourselves.

So what does that look like? When you wave your pointer finger in the face of your lover, it’s like a one-sided attack, basically a surefire way to detonate their bombs of defensiveness. It will be very difficult for them to really hear you if you’re trying to explain your own feelings via a list of their imperfections. In fact, it’s actually quite a painful thing to sit through.

Now, I’m not telling you not to complain, because grievances are normal when you’re attempting to do life with another person. But I am encouraging you to take John Gottman’s approach of “complain without blame,” which is the art of turning “you” statements into “I” statements as I showed you above. In Gottman’s model, there are three steps. One: feel. Two: about. Three: need. The latter generally being a positive need.

“I feel sad because we’re spending less time together. I think we need to schedule a date.”

“I feel rejected because we haven’t had sex in a month. I’d like to talk about it with you.”

“I feel anxious when you yell. It’s harder for me to process my feelings. Can we be softer with one another?”

See, when we complain with blame, we quickly forget that that our lover has traveled a completely different life path than us. We often have unrealistic expectations and expect them to function in the world as we do. When they don’t, we are totally disappointed, sometimes even angry. We scold them for not reaching some sort of potential we are so presumptuously assigning them based on our own experiences. It’s this kind of scolding that can lead to additional hurt feelings instead of healed ones through authentic communication.

When we own our feelings free and clear instead of just checking other peoples’ behavior, we increase the balance. And in relationships, balance, is a major payoff.

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