Back when I was in college, a friend and I were planning to live together along with a third housemate. I told them that I wanted my own room.
“We’re not finding any three-bedroom apartments,” my friend said, after we’d toured a few places.
Not wanting to be a cog in the wheel, and knowing our options were limited, I reluctantly conceded to sharing a room.
That following year I paid the price of that decision. My friend’s boyfriend stayed overnight in our shared room five nights a week — even though he had his own room in a house ten blocks away.
I never once said I had a problem with this. Instead I quietly stewed about it and behaved passive-aggressively. I thought speaking up would have led to an argument, and maybe it would have — but not speaking up led to an internal battle that turned out to be just as unpleasant, if not more so.
I know I’m not alone in this, and that many young adults struggle to some extent to communicate vulnerably — particularly when they grew up in environments where their feelings were often invalidated.
Here are some common disruptions to healthy communication that I’ve noticed in interactions between friends and loved ones as well as what I’ve found helpful when confronted with them.
1. Expecting mind-reading.
This goes hand in hand with feeling bothered by something, but not speaking up about it. As I outlined in the opening example, my lack of tools at the time prevented me from setting boundaries and asserting what I was willing to accept in our shared space. It can be difficult to directly communicate needs. It’s a lot easier to expect another person to mind-read.
In an ideal world tailor-made for each of us, this might be a reasonable expectation. A kind friend or devoted partner generally does seek to attune to our needs often, and this at least partially relieves the onus of having to explaining ourselves quite so frequently.
In the messier world that we actually live in though, we have to move beyond this fantasy for other people to be on our wave-length.
Uncomfortable as it may be, the more we practice owning and stating what we want and need, the less unnatural it will feel (and down the road, our transparency will take us closer to it).
2. Confusing assertiveness with aggressiveness.
One evening a Lyft passenger entered my car and boldly instructed me to turn off my music, before even greeting me. It got me thinking about the distinction between requests and demands. I would have had more empathy for this man had he asked, “Is it all right if we turn down the radio?”
Aggressive communication dismisses any possibility of a collaborative approach, while eliminating acknowledgement of the possibility that your need might conflict with another person’s. The middle ground of assertiveness assigns equal importance to each person’s (potentially opposing) needs.
How can we work with both? How might we find a way for each of us to be comfortable?
3. Not staying awake to the small signs or addressing the little things as they come up.
I was listening to a podcast one when suddenly it just shut off. It didn’t give me a reason why. And every time I attempted to re-start it, it continues to inexplicably crash.
Why are you doing this? I asked in despair.
A little voice responded to my frustration with: “I know it seems totally random — but I’ve actually been asking you every day for a week now to restart your iPhone. The phone has been due for updates, but you kept hitting the little box that says ‘no’ — and this is the outcome of those repeated no’s.”
The voice had calmly and in a matter-of-fact way informed me of my contribution to the current problem. It had made me aware of what piece lay within my control.
When confronted with behavior (in a partner or friend) that seems totally random to you, try zooming out and looking at the bigger picture. Ask yourself, Did it really come out of nowhere — or did I just ignore the signs leading up to it?
As Matthew Fray put it: “If I had to distill the problems in failed relationships down to one idea, it would be our colossal failure to make the invisible visible, our failure to invest time and effort into developing awareness of what we otherwise might not notice in the busyness of daily life.”
4. Not taking time and space when feeling mentally muddled or reactive.
As an introvert, I thrive in places that allow me the space to hear my own thoughts. When I can’t, it’s unnerving — like an invisible cord between my mouth and mind has been cut.
People like me at times need space to process, especially during conflict. Taking it sharpens our clarity over how we really think and feel, unswayed by how another person may want us to feel. After, we’ll be better able to re-enter an interaction with a clearer head and reduced reactivity.
It’s important to just make sure to state that this is what we need (we don’t want to cross the line into stonewalling, which is painful for the other person).
Communication in relationships can be challenging, but awareness of our own patterns and how they interact with other people’s can help make it more navigable.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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