All day, every day, we tell people what we want: tall iced mocha, please. I’ll take paper, please. Can you move so that I can obey that green light? So why, when it comes to expressing our wants to a loved one, do so many of us fall silent? In our personal relationships (both in and out of the bedroom), we could all use a few more strategies for expressing ourselves without embarrassment.
Too often we hesitate to communicate our needs because it makes us feel selfish, or we’re afraid we’re going to hurt someone. It’s important to remember that wanting someone to know what you want isn’t a selfish impulse. In any relationship, your emotional needs aren’t only about you – they’re about your relationship with the other person.
Think about it. When you keep your feelings and your desires to yourself, you deprive your partner (or family member or friend or co-worker) of information vital to understanding you, and to determining what is gratifying, discomfiting, hurtful or helpful to you. This not only informs your partner’s future actions toward you, it shapes his or her perception of how the two of you fit together.
Agreeing that honest communication is necessary is one thing. Actually learning to share embarrassing or delicate feelings is a little more difficult. Though it comes effortlessly to children, expressing what we want (and what we mean), without apology or passivity is a skill that takes most people a lifetime to redevelop.
One tried and true strategy is to begin with a positive. Honesty is crucial here – you want to make sure it doesn’t sound like you’re setting up a complaint with an empty compliment. Really concentrate on identifying an honest upside. Did you love the motivation behind her action? Can you acknowledge that you’re absolutely certain he didn’t mean to be hurtful? When you realize that most people’s foibles are really the flip-side of their most admirable qualities, it isn’t really that difficult to be affirming.
Clear communication begins with being clear, so choose your words carefully. “Try to be specific rather than general about how you feel,” advises clinical psychologist and marriage counselor Dr. Larry Alan Nadig. “Consistently using only one or two words to say how you are feeling, such as bad or upset, is too vague and general. What kind of bad or upset? (irritated, mad, anxious, afraid, sad, hurt, lonely, etc.).”
Communication strategies apply to expressing yourself in the bedroom, as well. After all, physical intimacy is when openness and sensitivity are especially important. Specificity can be very effective, especially with a partner who is shy about communicating about sex. “Do you like this?” isn’t a terribly helpful question. If you’re the one asking questions, try giving your partner a couple options, like higher or lower… harder or softer… slow or quick. You can also try using a scale of 1 to 10 to measure pressure or pace. Often, just the fact that you are asking questions gives your partner permission to discuss what is preferable, and makes communication more comfortable.
If you’re still having trouble finding a way to talk about something, particularly if that something is something you’re upset about, Dr. Nadig suggests an easy formula that may help. Take some time to identify exactly why you feel that way – then frame your discussion with these four steps.
1. When: Describe the person’s behavior you are reacting to in an objective, non-blameful, and non-judgmental manner.
2. The effects: Describe the effects of that behavior. This is the most important part for the other person to understand – your reaction.
3. Say how you feel: This is the most important part to prevent a buildup of feelings.
4. I’d prefer: Tell the person what you want or what you prefer they do.
These steps can help you communicate your feelings without blaming your partner for how you feel. Not only will it be easier for you to broach the subject, but when your partner does not feel attacked, they are free to participate in a non-confrontational and productive discussion. Your four steps might go like this: “When you go out after work without telling me, I don’t know where you are and I feel frustrated that I can’t plan my evening, and I worry because I don’t know how to reach you. I don’t mind when you spend time with your friends, but I’d prefer that you call me when you’re not coming home.”
This strategy works well in the bedroom too. You might use the four steps to describe an anxiety, a preference, or both. For instance: “When we leave the lights on, I have a hard time letting go of other distractions, and I feel self-conscious. “I’d love to be alone together in the dark, and maybe add some music so we can create a private escape from the rest of the world.”
In and out of bed, if your partner cares about you, they want to know what you want. Now, whether you agree on everything or not is something else! But disagreement is at least as essential to a relationship as harmony. Remember that expressing your wants and needs is fundamentally important to maintaining an honest and supportive relationship. What’s more, it can be an intimate experience that brings you closer together.
Don’t be afraid to speak up – your honesty could be just what your partner needs.
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