I know that communication is one of, if not the most important aspects of a successful, long-term relationship. I know that. I believe that. So, why is it so hard to have open communication? In my relationships, why have I held back what I wanted to say? Why have I, time and time again, simply turned the other way when something was bothering me or bitten my lip when there was something critical that had to be said?
There's no doubt that part of this "holding back" is an attempt to avoid confrontation. But it's also an attempt to be the "better person" or the martyr; to be the one that doesn't get bothered by this or that. And part of it is about compromise - some sort of unspoken compromise that if I don't mention X, I can do Y and not feel guilty.
Part of it, and perhaps a bigger part of it than I realize, has to do with the magic of love. By that, I mean the fairy tale, head-over-heels, ga-ga feeling that we want love to be. Shouldn't everything be perfect? To paraphrase "Wedding Crashers", love is the recognition of our soul's counterpoint in an another. Why would something so wonderful, so bigger than ourselves need to be concerned with the nitty gritty of every day life?
I think part of what makes truly open communication in a relationship so difficult is that it conflicts with the magic and the ideal. If we have to express anger, dislike, resentment, or hurt, isn't that an admittance that what we have is not magical? If it was magical, wouldn't things just work? Shouldn't it just be easy?
The other day, I was thinking about the movie, "American Wedding" (the third installment of the "American Pie" series). In it, Michelle, the female lead, is having some pre-wedding jitters. Jim's dad, who is the voice of reason throughout the series, calms her with these words:
"Why do you think, Michelle, they call it 'making love'? .... I think they call it 'making love' because you have to make love work. You know, it's about compromise and sacrifice. And I think Jim has sacrificed for you. My god, he shaved his entire pubic region, which would baffle most cultures around the world. But, but, he did it, and, and, and he did it for you."
Humor aside, something about this strikes a chord inside of me. I need a large shift in the way I think about romantic love. Rather than let this concept of work ruin the "magic," I have to start believing that the ability to constructively work through problems is not a negative aspect, but rather part of what makes my relationship so magical.
With this new outlook, there is something epic that we need to wrap our heads around: we are not perfect. And as such, we cannot be expected to act perfectly of our own accord, nor can we expect that of others.
That might be the biggest problem with relationships - the illusion that we will all be perfect without any structure or framework to promote that behavior. The next biggest problem is probably that when the illusion of perfection is broken, it is met with resentment rather than with construction.
So, how do we fix this? Often times in life, when I am confused or unsure as to how to proceed, I take my problem and transfer it over to another domain, a domain to which I am less emotionally involved. Traditionally, this has been the domain of platonic friendship; when I am confused in the ways of romantic love, I think about how I would act if the situation were not romantic. This has helped a bit, but tends to either fall short or not get acted upon.
"Not get acted upon."
Even if we can make all of the required mental shifts in how we view romantic love, the inability to act will effectively negate all of our efforts. What we need is a framework in place that doesn't leave the decision to act up to us.
The second I had "framework" in my mind, I immediately thought about work. Here at Epicenter Consulting, we have amazing communication. And that's not because we are amazing communicators (although we are pretty good); we have great communication because we have a framework in place that forces us to have it. We have something called the "End of the Day Ritual". This consists of getting together at the end of every day and asking the following questions:
What is the next action for morning.
What is the next action after that.
Where there any emails communications of interest from the day.
What is the biggest constraint and how do we solve it.
Are there any changes in procedure that need to be addressed.
By performing this ritual every day, it takes the human factor out of communication; it's no longer a decision to be made or an action to be done - it's simply part of the daily routine.
So here's the breakthrough moment that I had not so long ago - if this works so well for business partners, would this not also work well for romantic partners? Imagine if every day, my girlfriend and I took 5 minutes right before bed to ask similar questions. I think just the act of setting this time aside every day would lead to a major improvement in communication for several reasons.
First off, I have a theory that if this becomes a ritual, it becomes less pressure. A sort of relationship version of "Don't hate the player, hate the game;" having something potentially confrontational to say will not be as scary once it is part of a framework, cause, hey, that's the way we "play" our relationship.
Secondly, by doing this every day, we would be nipping things in the bud that otherwise might grow out of control before they are even addressed. How many times have you become so irritated by something and then exploded when really the whole thing could have been avoided if you took two seconds 8 months ago to just say, "Honey, you know I love you, but would you mind not doing that, it gets under my skin a little bit."
Lastly, it will simply facilitate communication that otherwise might not take place.
But what questions should be asked? I think the questions need to revolve around solving problems or preventing problems from occuring. Here's what I propose (each question asked by each participant):
Is there anything you need me to do tomorrow?
Are there any upcoming events that I need to know about (birthday, dinner, play, girls/boys night out, etc.)?
Have I done anything recently that offended or bothered you?
Is there anything you'd like to do that we haven't done ever/in a while?
Are there any changes to our daily routine that needs to be addressed (wake up time, chores, picking up kids, etc.)?
When I think of all the points of friction in my past relationships, I think that the above list of questions would be effective in facilitating worthwhile communication.
At first, this might seem like a very awkward activity to do. It was for Clark and me. However, after you start to see the positive impact it is having, you will start go become more honest, which will of course lead to better overall communication.
I think the biggest push-back people might have for this End of the Day Ritual is that it takes away from the "magic" of love. After all, shouldn't my perfect girlfriend know when my birthday is? Or shouldn't my perfect boyfriend remember that the Christmas party starts at 5pm sharp! Shouldn't he or she just know that I hate it when he chews with his/her mouth open? I mean, come on, who doesn't know that?!? Why should I have to tell him/her that I'd like to go out dancing once in a while? Should he/she just know that I like to do that from time to time?
Well you know what - we're not perfect! Rather than worrying that this imperfection takes away from the magic of a relationship, let's embrace it and put a framework in place the helps to ensure that we all have the best communication possible. We're human. We're fallible. It's time that relationships get run with that in mind.