In order to grow your relationship, you and your partner will each need to communicate in a sensitive, loving way. You may feel very far from being able to do that right now, but Becky and I have come up with a simple way of approaching conversations, called “HELP ME” conversations. This template gives us a platform for replacing negative communication which tears down with positive communication which builds up.
When we communicate with one other, we seek to communicate with:
HELP ME conversations will help you better understand your spouse better and help you feel better understood.
The most important thing is not only to understand our spouse but to make sure that he or she feels understood.
Many times, when communicating, issues arise which trigger our problematic pattern and we either go into attack mode or avoid mode.
Our model seeks to remove these hindrances in communication.
When it comes to beginning any conversation, always use a soft start up.
- Use a soft tone, rather than a harsh voice.
- Avoid swearing, name-calling or trading insults.
These negative communication styles usually end up building barriers rather than breaking them down. They usually send our partner into his/her problematic pattern before we’ve even begun. This does not serve your purposes in having an effective conversation.
Speaking softly gives your partner a chance to listen non-defensively. If you have
trouble speaking softly, it may mean that you are feeling stirred up with strong emotion. You could already be in your problematic pattern yourself. Pause. Take a few deep breaths, and remember to talk about your feelings instead of your partner’s fault.
Let’s look at the “HELP ME” conversation guide more closely.
Good conversation is honest about what you need.
Be honest, transparent, and vulnerable with one another, especially about what you need. You don’t have to fake it in front of your spouse. You’re supposed to be “one flesh.” He or she is the one person you can let down your hair with. You don’t have to appear as if you don’t need anything. You need to experience what it is like to be fully known and fully accepted. If you pretend or hide, you’ll never know if he or she is loving and accepting the real you or the pretend you.
Open your heart and soul to your spouse and be honest about what you need. Satisfying relationships involve vulnerable conversations about feelings, hopes, dreams and disappointments.
We think this conversation model will change your life. When one partner is willing to disclose his/her deepest emotional needs and the other partner is willing to hear and affirm what is shared, the emotional bond between these two people is strengthened.
Confiding emotionally signals to the other person, “I trust you enough to tell you this personal information; you matter enough for me to want to let you in.”
Always begin with a soft start up. Do NOT say, “We need to have a talk!” Instead, say, “Can we have a conversation that will HELP ME? I want to express to you what I need right now.”
We recognized that many couples struggle with this, because in our culture, we’re not used to vulnerability and we’re not used to honestly expressing our needs.
Notice, this is not about YOU, this is about WHAT I HONESTLY NEED. In fact, none of these sentences should begin with the words “YOU NEED TO….” They should begin with what “I NEED.”
For example, instead of saying, “YOU need to initiate sex more,” say, “I need you to initiate sex more.” Do you see how different this is? This turns the conversation from being about how deficient the other person is to being a conversation about how the other person can help meet my needs.
Instead of, “YOU need to show an interest in me!” Rather, “I need you to show interest in me.”
Not only should we be honest about our needs, but we also must be honest about how we feel, that is, our emotions.
Good conversations speak from the level of primary emotions.
People often feel inadequate or deficient when it comes to sharing their emotions. However, it is so crucial in conversations. Start your conversation with, “This is what I need and this is how I feel about it.”
Positive Connections are Formed When We Express Vulnerability
We break problematic relationship patterns with positive relationship connections. This will happen when you express vulnerability and honesty about your needs and feelings.
We have to remember that both pursuers and avoiders have one thing in common–fear of relational isolation because they feel unaccepted. “Pursuing” or “avoiding” is their preferred coping mechanism to protect themselves when they feel isolation and unacceptance occurring.
Unfortunately, this is a lie we believe. Being a pursuer or an avoider will not protect ourselves from the relational isolation we feel due to the issue that has made us feel unaccepted. The path of pursuing or avoiding will create even more distance between us.
However, if we are open, honest, and vulnerable about our needs and emotions, positive connections will form. Could you imagine how different things would be if, instead of pursuing my wife with arguments, blame, and criticism to protect myself from my unwanted feelings of isolation and non acceptance, if I said,
“I honestly need you to affirm that you still accept me right now, in spite of our disagreement regarding this issue. I feel emotionally isolated and unaccepted and I’m tempted to (pursue/avoid) in order to feel better, but I know that won’t work.”
Wow! That would totally change the conversation, wouldn’t it? That’s why we think “HELP ME” conversations will change everything for you.
Now, earlier we talked about sharing primary emotions. I think it’s important to share all of your emotions, but I want to encourage you to focus on primary emotions.
There Are Two Layers of Emotions.
Primary Emotions: These emotions tend to bring people toward us. When it comes to primary emotions EXPRESS them.
Secondary Emotions: These emotions tend to drive people away from us. Therefore, when it comes to secondary emotions seek to EXPLAIN them.
Primary Emotions (Express)
- Anger – when violated. (Boundary crossed: “I feel wronged”)
Again, expressing these emotions will bring people toward us. So if you’re afraid, express your fears. Or if you’re sad, express it. Your partner will be drawn in toward you. It’s okay to be sad in front of your spouse. It’s okay to feel hurt, to have joy, and to feel excitement. Give full expression to those feelings in the presence of your spouse.
Secondary Emotions (Explain)
Secondary emotions are the emotions that we most often give full expression to in the presence of our spouse I am going to invite you to explain these emotions instead of fully expressing them. Secondary emotions tend to push others away when we express them. Secondary emotions, if they are not explained, tend to trigger the pursue or withdraw process.
Here are some examples of secondary emotions.
- Anger (can be primary and/secondary)
What I would encourage you to do is EXPLAIN your secondary emotion by tracing it back to its roots and EXPRESS it as a primary emotion.
For example, “Honey, I feel so defensive, but I know that’s because I’m really just afraid. I need assurance that you accept me.”
Don’t EXPRESS your defensiveness. EXPLAIN your defensiveness.
“I’m feeling really moody, but I think it’s because I’m so sad that this day isn’t meeting my expectations. I need to know that I am enough, even though I feel as if it’s all falling apart.”
Rather than expressing moodiness, he explains it using primary emotions.
When you express your primary emotions to your spouse, he or she will be drawn in to comfort you.
We all have mirror neurons in our brain that attach with someone who is sharing primary emotions. When someone is sad, we seek to provide comfort. Primary emotions have action tendencies in them. When someone is afraid, the mirror neurons say to us, “be reassuring.”
When you express your secondary emotions to your spouse, he or she will be propelled away in order to protect themselves.
They will feel blamed. They will get defensive. Their problematic pattern will be triggered. They will feel emotionally isolated and unaccepted and either pursue you or avoid you–which will widen the gap between you.
The “L” in HELP ME is…
Effective communication that helps starts with an eagerness to hear and listen. As you hear and listen to your spouse share honestly about their needs and emotions, you’ll be tempted to jump in and interrupt.
We want to caution you to resist that urge. Listening without interruptions sends the message that you respect your partner, and you are willing to understand them.
Turn your phone off. Turn the TV, radio, and all other distractions off and really focus on each other. Be fully present in the moment with your spouse. Focus on your partner. Your attentive presence can be a source of comfort for them, so give them your attention.
Before thinking about a quick reply to your partner’s message, we would like to suggest that you slow down for long enough to affirm and acknowledge what you have just heard your partner say.
Repeat what they have said back to them.
Don’t get defensive or fire off the first thing that comes to your mind. Make an effort to mentally process what your partner has said and acknowledge that what your partner has just said is a very reasonable human experience for him or her.
When you affirm your partner you are demonstrating respect and equality for his or her view of reality even though it may be different from yours. If you just don’t get what your partner is saying, be honest, but in a supportive way.
A powerful way to give mental assent to what your partner is saying is to repeat back in your own words what you have heard your partner saying, and then communicate validation.
Do not offer a suggestion, problem solving, or advice. You want to postpone persuasion until you understand.
Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and feeling their pain. It also involves understanding them enough to see the logic of their decisions, even when they are poor decisions.
“I hear you saying that my mother can be hostile and mean to you. I’ve seen that in her myself sometimes. I totally understand why she made you mad last week. She’s gotten me upset many times in the past too.”
Empathy doesn’t mean approval or agreement, but it does mean realizing that everybody makes decisions that are perfectly logical to them and honestly trying to understand them. Empathy is a tool that is designed to give your partner what they truly want: acceptance.
Our Rules of Engagement
- We will attack the problem not the person.
- We will acknowledge our different perspectives.
- We will not keep secrets.
- We will avoid extreme words like never, always, every time, etc.
- We will seek to benefit each other and our marriage.
- We will not call each other names, use profanity, raise our voice, or be aggressive.
WHEN these rules of engagement get broken, or WHEN the HELP ME conversation has broken down and becomes more hurtful than helpful (and this WILL still happen), and when find ourselves starting to move toward our problematic pattern, it’s time for a
Either party must have the right to say, “I’m feeling overwhelmed right now and I need a time out.”
This is different than, “You are being so impossible right now, I need a time out.”
A request for a time out should include
- What you will do during the time out
- How long the timeout will be (30 mins to 24 hours)
- A promise to return and finished the conversation.
Bad Example: You say, “You’re being ridiculous and unreasonable! I don’t know why I waste my breath!” as you storm out the door, or retreat to your bedroom and slam the door.
Good Example: “I feel myself shutting down right now and I need a time out. I am going for a jog in the neighborhood. I’ll be back in about an hour. After I shower off, if it’s still a good time for you, I’ll be ready to finish this conversation.”
Give it a try
“HELP ME” conversations are conversations that are Honest about needs, express and explain Emotions, and are met with Listening, Presence, Mirroring and Empathy by the listener.
- Good communication expresses needs and emotions openly, honestly, directly, and respectfully instead of attacking or avoiding.
- Bad communication refuses to share needs and emotions openly, honestly, directly, and respectfully and instead chooses to follow his/her problematic pattern (Attack or Avoid).
- Good communication responds to the spouse’s needs and emotions with listening, presence, mirroring and empathy.
- Bad communication does not respond to the spouse’s needs and emotions with listening, presence, mirroring and empathy, but with his/her problematic pattern (Attack or Avoid).
You and your spouse will find yourself communicating on an entirely new level and reaching new heights of authenticity, intimacy, and connection.