Tips on How to Communicate With Your Partner with Dr. Sarah Rattray
Wondering how to better communicate with your partner? In today’s episode of The Gentle Parenting Show, Kim takes a turn to talk specifically to couples and parents. She interviews Dr. Sarah Rattray, the founder and CEO of the Couples Communication Institute. Dr. Rattray is dedicated to helping couples achieve lasting closeness and intimacy through effective communication. She has over 30 years of private practice helping hundreds of struggling couples one on one and now her mission is to make her methods achievable to everyone.
The Foundation: How to Communicate With Your Partner
When a couple becomes parents, there isn’t a manual on how to do it. There isn’t a lot of talk about how to handle situations with kids, before having kids. A lot of times, parents don’t know how to ask their partner for what they need in marriage or coupling. There’s something new to face every single day as a parent, so there’s always time to practice communication.
Dr. Rattray’s biggest suggestion for communicating as a couple is to find a safe space and time to do it. In order to have important conversations as a partner, each partner needs to feel calm, relaxed, and safe. When your brain feels safe and comfortable, there’s room to see creative problem solving and access empathy, compassion, interest, and even a sense of humor.
Starting a Conversation
When conversations start, it’s easy for one partner to get in “fight or flight” mode if the situation feels hostile. If one partner feels startled or surprised by the start of a conversation, it’s easy to get in fight or flight mode. Dr. Rattray emphasizes that the way you being a conversation with your partner is important. No matter what you want to talk about, set the stage, be a leader and start the conversation as safe as possible.
The first thing Dr. Rattray teaches in her course is how to set up a conversation. First, get your partner’s attention in a calm and safe way. The where and when of this conversation are important. Don’t yell something at a partner on the way out the door on a hectic morning. Try to find a moment that is calm to start the conversation.
Find Out What Your Partner Values
When tensions come up in parenting, it’s easy for couples to blame each other for the issues. This is why it’s so important to start our conversations about these issues in a safe way. A lot of parents automatically have an idea of what the “right” thing to do is when it comes to obstacles in parenting. To overcome contentious conversations, find a way to be calm, so you can be open and curious to start a conversation. Both partners need to realize that behind every decision a parent wants to make, there is a value, opinion, and a story about it. This is the secret on how to communicate with your partner.
For example, in relation to sleep, one parent may want to try the cry it out method and the other may be very opposed to it. The parent who doesn’t want to do the cry it out method may value the comfort of their child, the sleep of the family, etc. It’s important to identify for ourselves what we value, and to be curious about that in our partner. (If you need help with sleep, check out Gentle Sleep Solutions).
You and your partner might disagree on some things with parenting (like sleep), but it’s more important that they empathize with each other’s values, stories, and opinions. When a partner shares a value with another, it’s important to validate each other and use it as an opportunity to understand each other more. Being recognized is being heard, and then you and your partner can get on the same team.
But, Dr. Rattray says that to understand your partner doesn’t mean you have to be in agreement. She says “when we understand each other and we let each other feel understood, we just feel so much more connected and we’re more motivated to work together. We can conquer the world when we feel close.”
Common Obstacles in Parenting
When a couple expands their family and world by welcoming children, it can bring on certain challenges. Dr. Rattray’s most important piece of advice for this is to just have one conversation at a time – a very important piece on how to communicate with your partner. By this, she means focusing on one small subject or issue at a time.
For example, say you and your partner think differently about discipline. She suggests having small conversions around that. Ask and discuss with each other these things:
- Do we want to discipline at the moment, or take time to talk with each other before deciding?
- What kind of steps do we take in the heat of a hard moment with our child?
- What are your values around discipline?
- Were you disciplined as a child? How was that?
These are just a few examples of smaller conversation topics. Dr. Rattray also says that if parents have conversations too quickly, like in the heat of a moment, too many obstacles can come up. Kim even shares an example of a word her friends would use in the thick of a conversation (or argument) with her partner to end the conversation and come back when things cool off. If you’re feeling flooded or in a fight or flight mode, take a break, and come back to the conversation later.
Staying Solid as a Couple When Parenting
Dr. Rattray shares an example of some patients she had in the past. The couple had small children, and they were very loving and devoted parents. However, the couple said that they had “parked” their relationship when they became parents. This was a big issue in Dr. Rattray’s eyes because couples just can’t put their relationship on hold until the kids are out of the house.
Parenting small children is stressful, of course, but if you just limp along in your relationship, what happens when the children leave the nest? The couple doesn’t even know each other anymore. Kim and Dr. Rattray discuss several practical ideas to keep a couple’s relationship strong while parenting:
- Date night. This is very common advice, but it doesn’t need to be as hard as others make it out to be. Date nights don’t need to be elaborate or expensive. They can be as simple as planning 30 minutes with each other after the kids go to bed.
- Put electronics away. Don’t give your partner just half of your attention. Shut everything down and be fully engaged so you can feel a connection.
- Look for the good. What does your partner do that makes you feel warm and fussy? Look for it and tell them often. This isn’t something that has to do with parenting either. Compliment their attention to work, their determination in working out, their kindness to a friend, etc.
A lot of couples have asked Dr. Rattray if it’s possible to change their relationship if only one partner is willing to do the work. She says that to get the ball rolling, at least one partner needs to be fully invested. For a long-term, long-lasting relationship, both need to be motivated. But to get started, one person needs to take the lead and set up safe and calm conversations. This is the key about how to communicate with your partner. Then, together, you can practice having those safe conversations that create the foundation of a healthy relationship.
In her closing remarks, Dr. Rattray gives some of her most sound advice for couples. First, be curious about each other and hold hope even when you don’t feel it. Second, realize that as a couple and as parents you still have ONE goal – to be a happy and lasting family.