You might believe you communicate well with your spouse or partner, but couples don’t always relay messages to their loved ones as well as they think, and an illness like arthritis can complicate communication even more.
According to a study published last year in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, when one person speaks to his or her spouse, the speaker assumes the partner has all the information the speaker has, and wrongly believes an explanation isn’t necessary – what the study authors called the “closeness-communication bias.” Married people tend to give even strangers more details than they give their partners.
“A lot of our relationship misery comes from expecting our partners to know what we’re feeling without having to say it,” says psychologist Jeffrey Bernstein, PhD, author of Why Can’t You Read My Mind: Overcoming the 9 Toxic Thought Patterns that Get in the Way of a Loving Relationship (Da Capo Press, 2003).
“When communicating with your partner, stop and take the time and effort it takes to see things as others see them,” says lead study author Kenneth Savitsky, professor of psychology at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. “Does he or she share your same perspective?” Couples are especially prone to egocentric communication, and failing to consider a partner’s view, he adds.
Keeping communication a two-way street is key, especially for couples dealing with pain or limitations.
“In couples where one is coping with a chronic illness, it’s important to keep an open and honest dialogue,” says William Steele, PhD, a relationship therapist in Indianapolis and former clinical director of the LDS Hospital Pain Clinic in Salt Lake City. A partner with an illness may become hesitant to express what he or she is really feeling for fear of being seen as a chronic complainer, says Steele.
If your arthritis is getting in the way of good communication with your partner, use these strategies to help you talk about it more effectively.
Show your own compassion. “Know that your spouse is hurting, too, but it’s a different kind of hurt,” says Bernstein. “He may feel incredibly helpless, so [let him know that] his just being there is helpful.”
Be brief. A long monologue may overwhelm your partner and cause him to shut down, Steele says. “Keep your message to three phrases or sentences.”
Cut toxic language. Remove negative phrases such as, “you always do this …” or, “you never think of doing that ...” from the discussion.
Encourage active listening. Ask your partner to make eye contact, ask questions and repeat what you’ve said, Steele suggests. “Ask him, ‘how do you interpret what I just said?’”
Try laughter. Maintain a sense of humor with your partner, and don’t hold back your smile, Bernstein says.