Although my husband, Dr. Hanalei Vierra, and I teach healthy communication skills to couples we work with in our private practice, we realize that no technique will be effective at home for our couples if there are no safe and solid underlying agreements between them-ground rules, so to speak—regarding how to treat each other in the most respectful and loving ways. Here are the basic Relationship Agreements that we believe create the safest environment for a healthy relationship to take place:
1. Respectful Communication- unless both parties are willing to speak to each other in a respectful way, working out difference will be impossible. To keep it simple and real: respectful communication means speaking to someone the way we ourselves want to be spoken to. The real test comes when someone needs to express anger (see #6) in a way that lets their partner know they didn’t like what they did, but still love who they are. Also, when one partner needs to tell their own version of what happened to cause the disagreement in the first place, even if it’s a conflicting version (see #3). Respectful communication also means no mind reading and don’t expect your partner to read your mind; no “keeping score” of past grievances (truly heal them along the way and don’t drag them forward with you); and no sending mixed messages about how you feel.
2. No Double Standards- the values and standards we use to measure and evaluate our partner’s behavior are the same values and standards we use to measure and evaluate our own behavior. For eg. If I feel hurt by something my husband said or did-and if I want him to hear about my pain and be accountable for what he said or did-then I myself need to be open to whatever pain I may have caused him to feel and be accountable myself for what I may have done or said to hurt him.
3. Healthy Boundaries- this means listening to each other without interruption because each person has the right-not only to their own version of whatever it is that happened-but also to express their version of what happened without interruption, harassment, or “reality check” from the other person. We all have our own unique filter for how we perceive any given event in our lives. Agree to take turns as to who will listen, but whoever is in the listening role, do just that: listen! You will get your turn to speak! Also, it is disrespectful to try to tell the other person how he or she feels at any given time. You can be the expert of your own feelings—but not of anyone else’s.
4. No “Fight or Flight”- since the Survival mode of “fight or flight” is a coping mechanism we all engage in (and is probably what helped to create the discord in the first place) more of the same will only make the situation worse. “Fight” is any form of aggressive attack, harsh judgement, insult, criticism, or accusation toward the other person. “Flight” is any form of hiding out, shutting down, defensiveness, or deflection of responsibility or accountability for hurtful behavior. Neither of these is productive. In attempting to reach mutual understanding with another person, remember that if it feels like the conversation is starting to spiral down into a fight-or-flight dynamic, then consider taking a Time Out (See #5 below). After any fight or flight behavior, circle back to your partner and try to talk to each other in a respectful way (see #1).
5. Take a Time Out- when push comes to shove (figuratively speaking of course), an agreed upon Time Out could help to diffuse the heightened need for “fight or flight”. The Time Out consists of two pieces: 1) agreement to separate in order to “cool off”, and 2) an agreed upon time to re-convene in order to finish the conversation. Whatever time frame is needed to regroup-whether it is ten minutes or one hour or till later on in the day-agree to how much of a Time Out is needed, take it, then come back and pick up where you left off, but re-engage within the framework of the above Relationship Agreements. Time Out can never be used as a means of “flight” or putting the other in the “freezer”. It must be a way of getting back on track with healthy communication.
6. Assertiveness- is the willingness to be honest and forthright without being aggressive. This means “telling it straight” in a loving manner without tip toeing around your partner. If you are tip toeing or walking on egg shells, you are hiding out in fear of your partner’s reaction. This only leads to built up resentment in you and lack of trust from your partner. Being assertive or direct creates an honest and loving style of communication that we believe serves healthy communication the best and builds trust with the most consistency.
7. Accountability- is very crucial to building safety and growth in a relationship. When you have played a part in a misunderstanding between you and your partner, do not hesitate to hear the complaint, put yourself in your partner’s shoes to imagine how that affected him/her, think about why you may have done/said what you did, own it and take accountability for it. Figure out what may have triggered you so you can identify any underlying hurt/fear, etc. that may have fueled your comment or behavior. When you are ready to make a sincere apology make sure to say “I am sorry for what I said/did”, not “I am sorry you are feeling hurt”. The former is taking full responsibility. The latter is putting the responsibility back on your partner.
8. Validation and Empathy- being able to put yourself in your partners shoes for a moment to try to imagine how they are feeling is an important skill to develop. If you can’t have empathy for your spouse’s “hot buttons”, you create a Double Standard (see #2) when you expect him/her to try to understand your own. Validating the other person doesn’t mean “agreeing” with their position. It means allowing their point of view to make sense given who they are— despite the fact that you have a different point of view. Mutual respect is about honoring each other’s uniqueness-not about judging our differences. Validation and empathy help us remember why we chose each other way back when all we thought we had were reasons to trust and love each other.