Since the discovery of the spoken word, we’ve all been talking nonstop and understanding each other less and less. We talk but often we don’t express our needs or our feelings in a clear voice, expecting instead that our partners, family, friends and colleagues will magically be able to read our minds. On the other hand, we may think that we’re listening, but frequently our own egos and insecurities, and wants and needs get in the way. Effective communication can only happen when people are committed to learning the skills of emotional communication and problem-solving. Specific kinds of positive behavior that facilitate communication include: honesty, openness, directness, lovingness, respectfulness, selflessness, kindness, carefulness and acceptance. If you are someone who has difficulty expressing your true feelings, trust me — you are not alone.
During the past 35 years as a practicing psychotherapist and sex therapist, having treated thousands of men and women of all ages and stages of life and socioeconomic backgrounds, I can definitely say that communication and problem-solving are challenges for most of us. In my couples sessions I spend considerable time, regardless of the issue or issues, teaching people HOW TO SAY IT, WHEN TO SAY IT, WHERE TO SAY IT, IF TO SAY IT and how to do this well. The end goal is to help people develop and foster honest, open, healthy and loving relationships.
HOW WELL DO YOU COMMUNICATE? Take my test and find out.
1. Do you say what you mean and mean what you say in an honest, caring and careful fashion?
2. Do you avoid expressing your true feelings for fear of offending or hurting someone else?
3. Do you deny your feelings because you feel that you are not worthy of having your needs met?
4. Do you suppress your feelings for fear of being rejected?
5. Do you project your feelings onto others?
6. Do you displace your feelings instead of directly confronting the person or persons with whom you are upset? For example, you throw the remote control across the room instead of letting your partner know that you are angry with him/her.
7. Do you blame others for your problems instead of taking personal responsibility?
8. Do you manipulate others to get your own way, instead of working differences out fairly?
9. Are you defensive when conflicts arise, and are not willing to consider other viewpoints?
The following are a couple of real-life case histories from my practice that illustrate how problems can be solved when people are open to learning the art of emotional communication.
JUNE AND ALEX: June is a high-level executive at a Fortune 500 company. Her boss is overly critical and demanding. Her coworkers are so worried about their own jobs that there is little, if any, camaraderie. When she told her boyfriend Alex about her situation, he told her to stop complaining and just do her job, since he, too, had his own stresses at work. Alex’s lack of understanding, support and compassion in a variety of other ways prompted June to consider ending their relationship. She was tired of having a partner who was emotionally unavailable.
THE PROBLEM: Alex doesn’t seem able to acknowledge June’s worries, fears and frustrations about her work. He shuts her down and instead of empathizing with her about the situation, he berates her and makes her wrong. He was also unable to express his own feelings about how he, too, was feeling insecure about his own career path.
THE SOLUTION: Alex and June decided to try couple’s therapy as a last effort before ending their relationship. Alex apologized for his lack of sensitivity and told June how sorry he was that she was having a hard time at work. He asked her whether she wanted to talk about her situation and hear some of his ideas that could potentially help, and was able to finally acknowledge his own fears about his own job. Together they became natural allies in supporting each other. They learned how effective communication and the expression of empathy and compassion made all the difference in the world. This helped them to move forward rather than break up.
SAMANTHA AND ROBERT: Samantha is happy with her sex life with Robert. However, Robert recently has been complaining that they don’t make love enough. He has been cold and distant recently but refuses to have a conversation about their sex life. When Samantha asks him if something is wrong, he turns it around and accuses her of wanting to have an argument. Robert is spending more and more time with friends and when he and Samantha are together he routinely makes suggestive comments about how sexy and attractive other women are.
THE PROBLEM: Robert is exhibiting passive aggressive behavior. He is avoiding discussing the real issue, which is his disappointment with the lack of sex in their relationship. Avoiding the subject and making hurtful comments to Samantha will ensure that both their sex life, as well as the quality of their relationship outside the bedroom, will only deteriorate.
THE SOLUTION: As a result of our therapy, Robert was finally able to let Samantha know how angry and disappointed he was about the couple’s lack of sexual frequency and apologized for his hurtful behavior toward her. They began to have honest dialogues about their sex life and are in the process of figuring out some compromises that will hopefully work for both of them.
In summary, when issues and problems arise, we need to find the words and the way to communicate our feelings directly and honestly. We need to be willing to acknowledge, address and RESOLVE issues as best as we can — even though we can’t change history. The goal should be to always try and find a win/win resolution if at all possible. Otherwise, it is virtually impossible to have a satisfying relationship with anyone.
Beatty Cohan, MSW, LCSW, AASECT is a nationally recognized psychotherapist, sex therapist, author of For Better for Worse Forever: Discover the Path to Lasting Love, columnist, national speaker, national radio and television expert guest and host of “The Ask Beatty Show” on the Progressive Radio Network, which airs live every Monday afternoon, 3–4 p.m. EST. She has a private practice in New York City and East Hampton.