The secret to an emotionally rich relationship is emotionally rich communication. If we want to sustain positive, vital energy in our relationship, we must become experts in telling the truth — about what we see, what we think, what we feel, and what we want.

This kind of communication is not for the faint of heart! It requires us to be courageous in both speaking AND listening. Every act of truth-telling is an act of heroism. 

In contrast, being what I call a “communication victim” will almost certainly wreck your relationship. Here are five things to look out for.

 

1) You wait for your partner to bring up things to talk about.

Communication victims put the burden of communicating squarely on their partners. Sometimes this can parade as “easygoing,” or even benevolent. One motto of the communication victim might be “I’m happy as long as you’re happy.” With no fears, wants, or needs of their own, communication victims leave no way for their partners to respond to them. I often hear “everything would be fine if he/she would just get off my case!” Unfortunately, the day a partner “gets off the case” is frequently the day they decide to leave the relationship.

This situation is typically set up from the beginning by both partners. In most relationships, one person usually assumes the role of primary communicator. This person takes full responsibility for monitoring the “state of the union,” and communicating about it. Over time, this becomes extremely exhausting.  

The way out of these destructive dynamics is for both partners to take equal responsibility for communicating the truth, especially the painful truths about each’s experience with one another. Be especially wary if one of you has taken on the role of “nag” or “nit-picker.” This is usually a clear sign of an imbalance in truth-telling.

2) You respond reluctantly and passively to your partner’s requests.

Another characteristic of the communication victim is a reluctant and passive response. This can take several forms:

  • Giving indefinite answers like “we’ll see” or “I’ll get to it” (yours truly is guilty of this!)
  • Making agreements without intention to follow through
  • A focus on appeasing the initiator rather than finding a solution that works for both parties
  • “Battening down the hatches” to weather an emotional storm rather than responding to the underlying emotional need
  • Hamming up the response in order to be noticed or induce guilt ( e.g. loudly rattling plates after an argument about doing the dishes)

Relationships are strengthened each time a partner’s bids — for connection, reassurance, affection, solution-seeking — are answered. If the bids fall on deaf ears, or worse, rolled eyes, the emotional bond between you will suffer. Communication victims often feel put-upon or criticized when hearing their partner’s requests. They fail to see that it is in their own best interest to nurture their relationship.

It is important to distinguish between a partner who is passive and reluctant and a partner that has a slower rhythm. In a relationship, you will likely notice that each of you have your own pulse of making decisions and getting things done. For the person that buzzes at a “higher” frequency, a slower rhythm can seem sluggish and lackadaisical. For a person who processes information more slowly, higher frequencies can feel uptight and overwhelming. The relationship must ultimately be “big enough” to accommodate each partner’s rhythm.

 

3) You know the truth, but don’t say anything until it’s dragged out of you.

In an enlightened, conscious relationship, the truth is shared on an ongoing basis at the microscopic level. This means that we are in constant communication about our inner experience of feelings, wants, and needs, and we take full responsibility for removing blockages to speaking and hearing the truth.

The full truth of our experience is not always immediately known to us, but creative and responsible individuals take a proactive stance in discovering the truth, rather than having it dragged out of them by their partners. Partners can certainly act as mirrors and assist us in discovering our truth, but the arrangement ought to be mutual.

Here are some examples of proactively discovering truth together:

  • “I’m feeling a little down this week but I’m not sure why. Would you spend some time with me just listening so I can sort it all out?”
  • “I feel myself distancing since our talk last Thursday. I’m not sure what that’s about. Can we talk about how I can feel close to you again?”
  • “I’m noticing a change in our lovemaking over the last several weeks, but I can’t put my finger on it. I’m wondering if you’re noticing it, too.”

I’ve worked with many couples over the years who use the cataclysm of explosive arguments as their main platform for truth-telling. Unfortunately, because the truth is delivered harshly and irresponsibly, there is a considerable amount of repair that has to take place in the aftermath. Communicating is much more enjoyable when we learn to proactively speak difficult truths in loving ways.

4) You justify communication blocks by saying things like “You never asked.”

Here’s another one I hear often. It goes something like this:

Wife: “Honey, I spoke to your mother today. She said your job hunt sounds like it’s going well. Why didn’t you tell me you were looking for a new job?”

Husband: “I don’t tell you every little thing. It’s not like you asked. If I told you you’d just pick it apart, anyway.”

Wife: “A job hunt is not ‘a little thing!’ You always keep me in the dark!”

Husband: “This is exactly what I’m talking about! This is why I didn’t tell you anything!”

In this case, the husband is playing the role of communication victim using a tried-and-true defense: “You never asked.” Anyone who has heard these words from their partner knows just how crazymaking it is. The reason it feels so invalidating is because of what it conveys: “You are responsible for getting me to tell you everything that is going on with me. I will only respond when prompted. In fact, I will only engage with you in meaningful ways if you insist upon it.” You get the idea.

Relationships thrive when partners assume equal responsibility for everything. This includes emotionally rich communication. Burdening one partner with the lionshare of truth-telling will ultimately harm the relationship.

If you find that you parry your partner’s complaints with some version of this phrase, try shifting from your defensive posture to a place of responsibility. Begin, first and foremost, with taking responsibility for communicating your own truth in a loving manner. I teach my clients to slow down and connect with their bodies in order to uncover the truth they aren’t sharing. This process takes about 10 seconds and can work miracles for relationships. Just one partner doing this changes the whole interaction:

Wife: “Honey, I spoke to your mother today. She said your job hunt sounds like it’s going well. Why didn’t you tell me you were looking for a new job?”

Husband: “I was hoping to tell you when I had some good news. I’ve been worried about our finances and didn’t want to burden you.”

Wife: “You won’t burden me. I’m here to support you. But I can’t do that if I don’t know you need support!”

Husband: “I know. And I know you deserve to know when I’m considering making big changes. I’ll show you what I’ve been looking at after dinner.”

This example leads nicely into the fifth and final sign of communication victimhood.

5) You keep fears and worries hidden from your partner.

Many people base their communication style on what their partner is “ready to hear.” Sometimes, this is well-meaning. The thought process is something like “I have a responsibility to be sensitive to my partner’s feelings.” As a result, they only speak the truth about their positive experiences. Partners can sometimes reinforce this situation, responding critically or anxiously when difficult emotions are expressed.

But concealing any feelings, particularly difficult emotions like fear and sadness, ultimately betrays our responsibility to be forthcoming with our partners so that they can make decisions based on all of the available information. I tell my clients not to “fragilize” their partners. Believing that our partners can’t “handle” our truth is just another way of looking down on them.

Concealing vulnerable emotions also robs our partners of the ability to respond to us at a deeper level, ultimately diminishing the intimacy between us. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep such a tight lid on our emotions, and the relationship will suffer as vital energy that might otherwise be available for connection is siphoned off towards suppression.

Sometimes we conceal difficult emotions out of legitimate fear that it will break the relationship. If you’re in this camp, I can tell you from experience that passion and intimacy suffocates in the absence of truth. Relational heroism sometimes means risking the relationship we have for the one we want.

 

Hopefully, you can see that being a victim in your relationship won’t get you what you want, but there’s an even more important reason to step out of this role. Your family needs you to be heroic in the way you love. Nothing else will do.

Heroically yours,

 

Hayden