Stephen Duclos, LMFT, CST, is partnering with Dr. Holly Richmond, a certified sex therapist in California, on multiple writing projects. Dr. Richmond has given us permission to use some of her thoughts about silent intimacy killers. Excerpts of this essay were used in the Readers Digest article The Silent Intimacy Killer That's Ruining Your Relationship.
Couples stop communicating because it becomes ineffective. If we are not being heard, why bother expressing our thoughts and feelings? Dismissal and disregard are two of the most harmful behaviors in intimate partnerships. If we tell our partner that we were hurt by something they said or did, and their response is to tell us we are over reacting or that we are wrong for feeling that way, it essentially invalidates our perspective. If that happens enough, we learn to stop trying. A common refrain becomes, “This conversation is pointless. You don’t hear me.”
The first step to start communicating in a more effective way is to set an ideal scene. Texting is an absolute no. I have never seen an argument via text turn out well. You lose inflection and body language—two essential pieces of the communication puzzle. Ask your partner if now is a good time to talk, find a quiet place without distraction (no TV or phones) and sit side by side but turned toward each other so that eye contact is easy. Eye contact equals vulnerability equals intimacy. An important part of being heard is being seen.
It is vital partners understand that just because the other’s perspective is different, it isn’t wrong. If a feeling, such as hurt, is expressed authentically, the partner’s job is to validate it, sit with it for a moment and try to understand. The trying to understand piece is empathy, or literally the ability to say, “Oh, I can see how you would feel that way.” Reflective listening is a great way to practice this. For example, if your partner says, “I’m furious that you were so late to our dinner date. How could you do that to me?” You say, “I get that you are really upset with me right now and that I’ve hurt your feelings.” You do not say, “Oh I was only 20 minutes late. What’s the big deal?”
Simply being heard and understood goes a long way toward regaining intimacy. We’ve all heard intimacy broken down like this before: in-to-me-see. It’s an effective go-to thought. Our job in relationships is to relate, which means validating our partner’s perspective and doing our best to understand it.