We lawyers are trained communicators, and that’s great. However, we are not necessarily well-trained to communicate in our closest relationships, such as with our significant others (SO). Part of the problem lies in why we are trained to communicate. Lawyers learn to communicate in order accomplish goals such as (1) win arguments (2) convince others about their positions and (3) negotiate deals.
The problem is that these goals are often not consistent with good relationships in our personal lives. Do I really want to win an argument with my wife? Is it a good idea to try to convince my wife to do something that she really doesn’t want to do? Should relationships be driven by negotiation in which each person feels like they’re giving something up, and neither is particularly satisfied?
As lawyers, our professional relationships are competitive, and we are trained to get the upper hand. But sharing your life with another person is a collaborative project, not a competition. Ideally you are on the same side. I don’t want to convince my wife to do something she doesn’t feel comfortable doing, and I don’t want her to make a decision she’s unhappy with just to reach a compromise with me. I want us to plot our journey together so that we are both completely fulfilled as much as possible.
When it comes to our SO’s we need a different type of communication.
First, Keep the Lines of Communication Open
Your SO is not your roommate. Your SO is not your business partner. And your SO is certainly not your adversary. He/she is your partner, lover and best friend. This is the most important relationship in your life, so it’s crucial to communicate constantly. I check in with my wife every single day, no matter how busy I am. I always want to know how she is feeling, how her day went, what her concerns are, and whether there is anything I can do to make her life more pleasant.
By the same token, I want to make sure she knows what’s going on in my life. So I tell her about the ups and downs of my day, things I’m excited about, my hopes and dreams, my concerns. She wants to know these things because they help her understand me, be more open to my feelings, and better consider my needs.
Talk about Boundaries
One of the biggest catalysts To fights with your SO is a failure to communicate about boundaries. If you don’t discuss what you are and are not comfortable with in life and in your relationship, you are that much more vulnerable to fights that will leave both of you with hurt feelings and resentments. After all, how can your SO know she has done something to hurt you if you don’t make your dislikes and deal-breakers known beforehand?
That’s why it’s so important to talk about boundaries when you’re in a good mood, before a potential problem arises. Many people have trouble discussing boundaries because they are afraid of being “controlling” and this is a reasonable concern. The last thing any of us wants to do is control our SO or make him/her feel constrained. But if your SO doesn’t even know what types of things bother you, how can he/she independently make an informed choice?
Boundaries are Normal and Healthy
The fact is that relationships are commitments people make to each other, and any commitment is a choice to accept certain boundaries. For example, in my relationship with my wife, we have both made it clear that we will not accept having sex with other people. That may seem like a pretty obvious boundary, but it is a boundary. Some couples have looser boundaries and don’t mind swinging, for example. Regardless, when I communicate that boundary, I’m not controlling my wife. I can’t and would never try to force her to do or not do anything. But she knows that sex outside of our marriage is a deal-breaker for me and I won’t stay in a relationship where it occurs.
Other couples have different boundaries. Some people don’t feel comfortable if their SO watches porn. Some people don’t feel comfortable if their SO takes a trip to Vegas without them. But even people in polyamorous relationships, where it’s consensual that there are multiple partners, have boundaries. Normally, these couples at least want to know the other people who their partner is having sex with, for example.
The bottom line is that all commitments have boundaries, and the key is to make your boundaries known, and encourage him/her to make their’s known to you so that you can both avoid breaking them.
Don’t Look to Win Arguments
There is no way to “win” an argument with your SO. Even if you win, you lose. You two are both on the same team. You’re supposed to be pulling for each other. How can you win if your teammate loses? I never want to win an argument with my wife. I want us both to win by resolving the problem. I can never be happy if she’s not happy, and I know she feels the same way. So when we have a disagreement, our first concern is making sure the other person feels acknowledged, considered and cared for. That’s the only way I “win” an argument in my relationship, because I can’t win if she loses.
Work Toward Contentment, not Compromise
At times, we all make sacrifices for our SO’s. Part of being in an adult relationship is sometimes putting your SO’s needs before your own. For example, I would love to learn to ride a motorcycle. But they terrify my wife. There is no way to get her on board with my taking up motorcycling, so I don’t. I love her and it’s just not worth it.
But most of the time, you don’t want to chart a course unless you’re both completely happy and comfortable. Even if you’re taking turns making the sacrifice, too many sacrifices will lead to mutual resentment. So make choices with both of your needs in mind, and make sure you are both happy most of the time.
How do You Communicate with Your SO?
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