If you have a domestic partner, spending extra time at home may be testing your relationship skills right now! If conversations are tense, it might be a great opportunity to bring more attention to the intention behind your words, as well as to the words themselves. Is your communication supportive, empowering, and encouraging? Or is it accidentally belittling, controlling, or coercing? None of us is perfect and we are always falling somewhere on this spectrum all the time. When our emotions are strong, we may not even be aware of how our communication is coming across to others. This article explores how to create healthy dialogue at home.
Direction or Dialogue?
There is a time and place for both of these styles of communication in our lives, but on the home front we generally feel better in dialogue than in direction. It’s useful to know the difference.
In a directional relationships, one partner holds the seat of “director” while the other holds the seat of the “do-er.” Examples of these include teacher/student, general/soldier, and parent/child. There is a necessary hierarchy in these relationships that allows them to function optimally. In some cases, romantic partners may play these roles with one another in specific contexts. You may work with your partner professionally, or perhaps he or she is a master chess player and you both have agreed to spend some time in the mode of teacher/student. However, playing these roles when they are NOT required can deteriorate the health of your relationship. With your partner, directive language tends to feel like an order: “Be ready in 15 minutes,” or “Take out the trash.” The verb at the beginning of the sentence implies one-way communication and the expectation of compliance.
Dialogue, by contrast, is non-hierarchical, like a good friendship. You each recognize that on a human level you both have equal capacity to grow, sustain, and contribute to your life together. Even though you may contribute different things at different times, there is a reciprocal balance in which you take turns supporting and being supported, giving and receiving, listening and speaking, deciding and following along. The language of dialogue is observational, subjective, and collaborative: “It’s quarter to five right now.” or “Would you take out the trash?” You can see how these questions are technically lacking an expectation of a particular outcome (although one might be hoped for). They invite a response from the other.
Tips for Creating Dialogue
1. Gratitude – It’s easy to take a partner for granted because they are always there, especially now! But it’s dangerous for the health of your relationship. Just like gratitude for food, sunshine, the internet, and warmth and safety boost your individual well-being, gratitude for your partner strengthens your relationship. Instead of “I love you,” or “What’s for dinner?” try saying “I’m grateful for you” and see what happens. If it doesn’t feel right to verbalize it, just think it in your mind.
2. Stay In the Moment – Whatever you are talking about, focus on the current situation and what you need or want now. Avoid focusing on past events, or predicting what may happen. Again, this is good general advice for individuals, but applied to relationships, it goes a long way. Because we tend to fall into patterns together, it’s very tempting to assume, “Oh, he just never does this,” or “She just always does that.” Even if you think you’ve had the housework conversation or the money conversation a million times, choose to believe that you can discover new territory together. Try asking open-ended questions like, “What are your thoughts on [x]?” or “What’s important to you about [y]?”
3. Be Subjective – Eliminating right and wrong can make your dialogue less charged and more productive. Speak in the first person about your own needs or feelings, accepting that they may be different from your partner’s. Resist the urge to blame your partner or justify yourself in any way. Try “I need a little time to myself tonight” rather than “You aren’t giving me enough time to myself” (blame) or “People need time to themselves” (justification).
What’s your favorite strategy for maintaining healthy dialogue at home?