There is a trend I have noticed among people who seek help in marriage and couples’ counseling. Both partners usually have the best of intentions. Both usually want to save the relationship and make it better. But often people end up in marriage counseling because they are engaging in five selfish behaviors which prevent good communication and understanding for each other to take place.
1. During a discussion or argument, thinking more about your rebuttal and less about what your partner has to say.
This is the number one issue I see among couples seeking counseling. Partners will do a fine job of expressing their frustrations, but then become defensive when the other partner begins to talk. They begin forming their defense while the other person is talking thus missing important information their partner is trying to convey. This usually goes back and forth, and I often see that both partners contribute to this barrier to communication by also personalizing (more on this later) and becoming more defensive as emotions escalate. I suggest to my clients to practice listening by paying careful attention to the message their partner is trying to send and repeating back what they are hearing, without any sarcasm or rudeness. It is also sometimes helpful to write down what you hear your partner saying to keep your attention more on his message.
2. Not telling your partner about issues, both individual and in the relationship.
I have yet to meet a human being who can read another’s mind, and your partner is not an exception to this rule. It is selfish to assume that she should know exactly what is wrong and how you want her to help. It may be stress at work, worries about finances or behaviors your partner is engaging in that bother you. The list can be long, and not talking about it will breed resentment and irritation with each other. Often I see couples taking out stresses and irritations on each other. Talking and listening to each other can remedy a lot of what is bothering you.
3. Making assumptions: It’s not always about you!
The flipside to the previous selfish behavior is making assumptions about your partner’s behavior and taking it personally. When human beings experience stress, we tend to react in ways that are not always helpful or nurturing to a relationship. I often see that a partner will be short tempered with her beloved. The beloved then takes these actions personally and becomes irritated or angry. Ideally, the partner experiencing the stress would communicate to his partner (as was outlined in the number 2 behavior). But since none of us is perfect, it may be up to the offended party to bring this behavior to her partner in a way that is gentle and kind, while communicating how this behavior made him or her feel. When doing this, be careful to put assumptions aside. In other words, don’t assume that your partner intended to attack you and had malicious intentions. Instead, remind yourself that he is still the person you chose and the person you love.
4. Worrying about your intimate needs and ignoring the intimate needs of your partner.
Intimacy is an important part of marriage and an issue that almost always comes up in couples’ counseling. Usually the issues with sex come down to partners having different sex drives, desires and expectations of what is normal and healthy in a marriage. It is important for each partner to talk about these issues. It’s OK to state what you would like to see as far as intimacy goes in the marriage. Once those things are said, try to then consider what your partner has said and consider his needs and how you can accommodate and respect them. Communication is extremely important in this area, and it will need to be an ongoing discussion.
5. Only considering the quirks and mannerisms about your partner that bother you, and not the things you are doing that may be bothering your partner.
I cannot tell you how many couples’ sessions start with “He does this” or “She does that.” These statements usually go on to describe some behavior or personality trait that drives the other person crazy. Instead of focusing on what the other person is doing, I encourage both partners to focus more on their own behaviors, particularly those that irk the other person. I don’t ask people to change who they are, but I do ask that they become more self-aware and willing to make adjustments to make the relationship better.
Keep in mind that no relationship is perfect. If you notice yourself engaging in any of the above behaviors, you have already done a lot of the work to correct the behavior, as awareness is often the most difficult step to making a change. The key to addressing these behaviors is continued awareness.