Q: In my previous marriage I never spoke up or let my needs be known. I am trying to learn to express myself better with men but am having a terrible time of it. In spite of my good intentions, it seems I either put my foot in my mouth or my new man friend misreads me. This is not easy. Any ideas?
A: It is not uncommon for people to find it less anxiety producing to be assertive with strangers or friends than in intimate relationships. There typically are greater perceived risks when dealing with an intimate partner such as fear of rejection physically, emotionally, or both. As you have mentioned, not speaking up in your previous marriage did not help the relationship to flourish. Direct honest and spontaneous communication in intimate relationships is essential and learning how to express ourselves assertively is a learned skill. Communication breakdown usually can occur at any one of three places.
1. If your intention is to throw a low blow and get back at your partner, this will come through, no matter how skillful you are at selecting the words and delivery. By the same token, if your intention is to clear the air and build a bridge with your partner, this will also come through. The feeling level permeates the communication, so be sure what you are really feeling before starting.
2. The sending of the message may be another area there things break down. If your intentions are positive, but you start your communication with, “You always come home too late,” instead of “I missed you and would really appreciate your being home by 6 p.m. for dinner,” “You” messages generally evoke an angry or defensive response. “I” messages keep things clear and are not as likely to be perceived as an attack, but rather a statement of your feelings or wishes.
3. The receiving of the message is the third area of potential problems. If your intentions are positive and your delivery has been an “I” message, but your partner responds as if he has been criticized, hurt or angered, stop. Ask him what he heard you say. You would be surprised at the power of selective listening. After he has repeated what he thought you said, if you were not heard as you intended, try it again. Once again, ask what your partner heard. Be sure you are being heard as you intended before going on.