CORE for Couples: Communication Styles in Love Relationships
Most couples come to my office saying they want to work on “communication.” I’ve got to tell you, that’s a very broad topic. There are so many facets of effective communication so please understand that there’s no cookie cutter for this. That’s why I’m all about giving you multiple communication tools. You can then mix and match strategies until you find yourself in a strong, fulfilling and lasting love relationship.
With that in mind, I’m going to teach you one tool today that’s stood the test of time in my practice. This tool involves some work that was made popular in the late 70s and early 80s regarding how people learn. There are three basic learning and communication styles I want to talk about today:
If you have one style, and your partner has another, you can get into some trouble. The good news is, you can get out of trouble with a few simple changes.
One word before we jump in. I’m going to be making a lot of generalizations. I understand that you might be different and not fit into some of these molds. If that’s you, I still believe there’s useful information here. So, take what’s helpful and leave what doesn’t fit. Now let’s jump in.
Visual Communicators in Love Relationships
Men largely fall in the visual communicators category. For them, communicating their love often takes a material or visual form. This is one of the reasons men like to give flowers and gifts, bring home a paycheck, fix stuff and take a woman to dinner or a show. These are all things you can see and that are quantifiable. What’s key is that men often like to be shown love visually also. This shows up as men wanting their partners to cook their favorite foods, look sexy, bring home their dry cleaning and have the house looking nice. All of these behaviors, both giving and receiving, are things you can see.
I’d say the number one complaint I get from men has to do with the amount of talking women want in the relationship. They say things like, “She’s always nagging me,” or “She doesn’t let me get in the door before she starts talking to me,” or “She’s always asking me questions. She wants to know my feelings, what I had for lunch, where I went after work, how much fun I had at golf - It’s exhausting!” Men usually care less about what you say to them and more about what you do for them.
Auditory Communicators in Love Relationships
Because God has a sense of humor, most women are auditory communicators. (Yes, I’ve also wondered how heterosexual relationships ever work). We generally like to hear the words of love and appreciation. This is why “He never says he loves me anymore” or “He never talks to me” are the complaints I hear most often from women who come to couple’s therapy. We tend to like cards professing our man’s feelings, little love notes, and reading stories about relationships. Although these things are written (so could be mistaken for visual communication), written words are as good as saying them out loud. Again, it’s a giving and receiving operation. Women generally like to say “I love you” to their partner, as much as they like to hear how much they’re loved, appreciated and valued.
Kinesthetic Communicators in Love Relationships
The smallest percentage are kinesthetic communicators. These are the touchy-feely folks. If your partner walks into the room and you just have to touch them, you might be in this category. Those couples who walk arm-in-arm everywhere, the ones who spoon all night long in bed, the ones who sit closely together on the couch even watching the news? These are kinesthetic people. Now, don’t confuse being kinesthetic with liking sex. Sex is not more prevalent among kinesthetic communicators. In fact, it’s a complaint I hear from some kinesthetic (and other) women: “I just want to touch him and have him touch me, I don’t always want it to be about sex.” What I’m talking about here are people who learn by rolling up their sleeves and experiencing things. These are people who feel connected when they touch another person. When you meet a kinesthetic person, they’ll likely shake your hand and clasp your shoulder with their other hand.
But, I’m All of Them
Some of you are saying, “I’m all three. I like to get gifts, I like to hear ‘I love you’ and I like to hold hands.” Yeah, yeah, I understand what you’re saying. You can definitely be a combination of any of these, but I want you to identify your predominant style. There’s definitely one of these that you like the very best. I want you to dig a little deeper. What are you at your core? The way to find out is to ask yourself, “How do I really know or feel when someone loves me?”
And here’s a little exercise so you can answer that question:
If you could only have one of these three scenarios, which would it be?
#1 Visual: Picture a life where your partner brings you home flowers and gifts all the time, cooks your favorite meals, always looks nice for you and takes you out for fun events and dinner regularly. You have all that but they never really say they love or appreciate you and never want to spoon or hold hands. Would that be enough for you to know in your heart that you are loved?
#2 Audio: Now picture a life where your partner tells you daily how much they love and appreciate you and let’s say they write you notes or poems about how special you are every week. But, there are no gifts for no reason, no favorite meals cooked or random acts of kindness performed. In addition, there’s no real cuddling or kissing you hello/goodbye every day. Would that be enough to believe in your heart that you are loved?
#3: Kinesthetic: Your final picture is of a life filled with touching. You walk in the door and your partner is all over you like white on rice. There’s cuddling on the couch, walking hand-in-hand and spooning all night long. However, you don’t hear how special you are or get “I love you’s” and there are no gifts (except the necessary holidays every year), no one bringing home your dry cleaning, stopping to get you flowers or making you lunches. Would that be enough to believe in your heart that you are loved?
I know we all like to get all three on some level. But, I’m pushing you to answer the question: If you could only have one, which would it be? What’s the one thing you’d need, no matter what, to know you’re loved deeply?
How it Looks in the Real World
Let me give you an example of how communication styles can have a huge impact in love relationships. Raul and Colleen came to me because they were thinking they needed to divorce and wanted to do it as amicably as possible since they had four children. I immediately noticed that this, in itself, shows a loving relationship, so was intrigued about meeting them. When they came to my office, they sat near one another on the couch and both seemed sad and angry, but clearly loved one another.
Colleen was a gorgeous woman with red hair and green eyes and a body that I couldn’t believe had produced four children. Raul was an equally handsome Puerto Rican-American who told me that he and Colleen met when they were both working at a bakery. They quickly fell in love and had been married just over 10 years when I met them. Their children were eight, six, four and 18 months. Colleen stayed at home and Raul worked two jobs, one at the bakery and another as an assistant pastry chef at a restaurant. I asked them why they thought they were unhappy and both replied that the other had fallen out of love. Again, I was intrigued.
Colleen began, “He’s always running to or from work and never talks to me anymore. He comes home and buries his face in the paper while he shovels in his food. Then he plays with the kids for a bit and runs out the door to his next job. Anytime he has time off from work he’s either running to one of the kids’ soccer games or he’s fixing something around the house. He doesn’t like spending time with me at all.”
Raul chimed in, “That’s not true. I always ask you to come to the kids’ games with me and you always say that you don’t want to.”
“Well, it’s my only time away from the kids and I like to read a book or speak with one of my girlfriends without a child hanging on my leg or interrupting.”
I asked Raul why he thought Colleen didn’t love him anymore and he replied, “Well, she doesn’t come to any of the games or events with me like we just said. I work a lot and I only ask that she have dinner waiting for me when I get home so I can eat quickly and get to my next job, but it’s never ready. She never has my clothes washed and ready so I can throw them on quickly when I go to the kids’ games since I hate going there in my restaurant clothes, and she never takes care of herself anymore. She used to always have her hair done and wear clothes I liked, but she doesn’t care anymore about looking good for me.”
Colleen jumped in, “I don’t have time to do my hair and it’s ridiculous to wear nice clothes when I’m on the floor all day with the kids anyway. And you’re the one who never talks to me.” She directs her next comments at me and says, “We used to have long talks over wonderful dinners, it was so incredible. He would always compliment me and let me know how lucky he thought he was to have me. Now, he barely acknowledges me and when he does it’s to complain about something I haven’t done for him or grunt.”
I need to tell you, it was hard to not smile as I sat hearing these two talk about how the other person didn’t love them when it was so clear that this couple had quite a bit of love for one another; they had just lost the ability to communicate that love to one another. Couples get into trouble when they have different communication styles but don’t realize it, so think they are unloved and unappreciated, when that’s not true. I explained this to Raul and Colleen and also gave them a handout covering the three communication styles: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Then I gave them their homework.
“Raul, your homework is to call home every day and check in with your wife. I know you’re busy, but you can do it during one of your breaks. It will only take a minute. I just want you to call and see how Colleen’s day is going and make sure you are really listening and not distracted. You can set the alarm on your phone for two or three minutes and then get back to your break. Then, when you come home, I want you to remember that your kids aren’t the only people who have missed you all day. Sit down to eat with Colleen and just spend 20 minutes connecting with her about her day and your own. Again, be present and really listen.”
“This sounds too easy, but I’ll do it,” Raul replied.
“Now Colleen, here’s your homework. I need you to have Raul’s dinner ready to go when he gets home. I also want you to eat with him instead of with the kids. At the very least, have a little salad or something with him. Make sure his regular clothes are clean and ready for him to wear so he can spend more time with you and eating and less time hunting around for his stuff. I also want you to change your clothes before he gets home, brush your hair and make sure you look reasonably cute. You don’t need to get all dressed up or anything, but get out of the sweatpants and put on a clean shirt.” Colleen eyed me suspiciously, but said she would make it happen. I told them I’d like them to do this for two weeks and then come back.
When they returned to my office, it had actually been three weeks due to some scheduling difficulties, but when they walked in, it was definitely worth the wait. The first thing I noticed was how good they both looked and the cheery atmosphere around them. When they sat on the couch in my office, they were practically on top of one another and both trying to speak at once.
“One at a time,” I implored. “How are you guys doing? Something sure seems different in your energy.”
“I need to tell you that I thought the homework you gave us was pretty stupid. Way too simple. So I think I did it at first just so I could come back and tell you that,” Raul said with a grin. “That first call home felt very fake and artificial, you know? But Colleen jumped in pretty quickly and started telling me stuff that was going on and, before I knew it, we’d been on the phone ten minutes. I really had to get back to work, and I thought she’d get mad that I had to cut her off, but she was fine. I have to admit I was thinking right away how she had so much she wanted to say that I was tuning out. I kept remembering what you said, that I need to be attentive and loving to her and it felt that way. When I got home that night, everything was ready and Colleen looked neat and clean. No spit-up in sight,” he laughed.
Colleen jumped in, “I couldn’t believe how connected I felt after just that phone call during the day; less alone. I was actually sort of happy to have dinner ready for him and I did eat a little with him. I noticed that I was talking a lot and hadn’t asked him how his day was. I think I used to do that a lot- just go on and on about my own day and not see how he was doing. I think I understand why he used to tune me out.”
They then relayed that as the week went on, they were immediately feeling the differences of just connecting in a real way with one another; How they felt more like a team and remembered that they liked one another. As you might imagine, sex came into the picture again (after a long absence) as they were feeling so connected to one another.
“I think the biggest thing I realized,” said Colleen, “was that Raul just working two jobs showed how much he loved me and the kids. It’s a visual communication thing,” she said while waiving around the handout I’d given them. He’s bringing home the bacon, two paychecks, and was showing his love and devotion that way. The problem was that I wanted to connect and talk with him and he was never around, so I wasn’t feeling very loved. When I learned to think of this as loving, it really helped. It’s almost like translating one language from another.”
I only saw Raul and Colleen two more times after that. They were just a couple who were communicating on different wave-lengths. Once they learned to understand better what the other was really “saying” circumstances improved dramatically.
I’m not saying your relationship will be this easy (this is somewhat of an extreme case that I’m using because it’s so on the mark with this topic), but I am saying that looking at how you communicate with your partner can change your perception of how they show love. Most importantly, it will give you some insight into how to love them.