Many couples come to my office for counseling looking for advice about how to express their needs effectively to their partner. For good reason, they often express frustration about not getting their needs met. For instance, Alison was tired of asking Steve to get off of his X Box and go for a walk with her, and to help cook dinner for their family. She had tried many tactics but nothing had worked so far. More importantly, Steve didn’t seem to listen or change his behavior, and she needed strategies to be more assertive and less resentful.
Alison put it like this: “We’re both working full-time and have two boys, 6 and 8, but Steve thinks the housework will magically get done. I’d even be OK with him not doing chores if he’d spend time with me – like watching a movie or walking around our neighborhood.”
Steve responds, “It’s true that Alison does more chores but I’m the one who does homework with our sons and I work more hours since I own my own business. Because of this, I usually work 10 hours a day and Alison gets home a few hours before I do.”
After meeting with Alison and Steve, Steve said he was willing to cook dinner a couple of days a week if Alison would communicate to him in a positive way and they could work on the menu together (and she’d do the grocery shopping). On of the keys issues with this couple, appears to be that Alison tends to hold in her feelings and then explode, while Steve often withdraws and spends time with their sons when this occurs. This has become a vicious cycle and neither one of them communicates effectively when this happens.
Being vulnerable means being authentic and being able to risk expressing your thoughts, feelings, and wishes without fear of rejection. It means you are in control of yourself, not the relationship. Many people complain that they aren’t getting their needs met with their partner, but they don’t feel comfortable sharing their desires. Or, they fail to make requests in a positive, non-blameful way to begin with.
One of the first things to consider is: how do you treat yourself? No one is going to treat you with respect if you beat yourself up. Get rid of all those self-defeating thoughts in your head – such as calling yourself “stupid” that won’t help you express your needs effectively.
4 Things to Consider When Expressing Your Needs to Your Partner:
1. Examine your own way of communicating and ask yourself: Do I hold in my feelings and then explode or retreat? Do I have abandonment issues or mistrust? Counseling and keeping a journal can help you in overcoming a tendency to communicate poorly.
2. Accept that you simply can’t be liked by everyone. There will always be those who don’t agree or approve of your words or actions. You can’t control what others think of you or their behavior. We all have unique perceptions based on our personalities and upbringing. Challenge your self-defeating thoughts about yourself and your partner. You don’t need to prove yourself to others so don’t dig your heels in.
3. Treat yourself and your partner with respect and compassion. Begin with paying attention to your own needs and feelings rather than ignoring them. Extend empathy to your partner and assume the best of them rather than the worst of him or her.
4. Practice giving a voice to what you want by being more assertive: Asking for what you need from your partner is about being vulnerable and inviting intimacy. Be sure to start with an “I” statement such as “I would love for you to plan a night out for us. I am longing for more time alone with you.”
When one partner communicates effectively it encourages his or her partner to do the same. That said, communication affects how safe and secure we feel in our relationship and affects our level of intimacy. In other words, it’s a challenge to be vulnerable and honest with a person when you can’t trust they’ll respond in a positive or appropriate way.
One highly effective way of stopping this negative cycle of relating to your partner is the use of “I” messages or “I” Statements when communicating important information to your partner. An “I” statement is an assertive statement about your thoughts or feelings without placing blame or judgment on your partner. It makes it more likely your partner will hear what you say and not get defensive in contrast to a “You” message which is negative and lacks integrity.
An “I” statement is a style of communication that focuses on the feelings or beliefs of the speaker rather than thoughts and characteristics that the speaker attributes to the listener. For instance, when Alison says to Steve, “I feel overwhelmed and stressed when I have too much to do” she communicates clearly. Instead, a “You” message is critical, such as “You’re so selfish, you never do your share.” Further, “I” messages are a good way to ensure that partners are accepting responsibility for their feelings and actions. There are three aspects of using “I” statements effectively according to experts.
- Emotion: “I feel…” (state your emotion): It’s a self-disclosure, referring to yourself and expresses a feeling. It must be expressed by stating how you feel not “You make me feel” etc.
- Behavior: “When you…” (describe their behavior or describes the conditions that are related to your feelings). Refer to the other person’s observable behavior or the conditions that are relevant for you to feel the way you do. State the facts without opinions, threats, criticism, ultimatums, judging, and mind-reading. Avoid words or behaviors that might create defensiveness in your partner.
- Why: “Because…” (explain why those conditions or your partner’s behavior cause you to feel this way). Explain why you experience this emotion when your partner does the behavior. Also, include how you interpret their behavior and any tangible or concrete effect his or her behavior has on you. Be especially careful about being critical when you describe the “because.”