Taking with your boyfriend or romantic partner isn’t always easy. Important conversations can often get overpowered by feelings of shame, histories of trauma or the threat of consequences, so we asked Lee Kinsey — an openly gay psychotherapist, sex therapist and couple’s counselor in Texas — what conversational hacks LGBT couples can use to communicate more effectively.
Kinsey is trained in something called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), a type of therapy that encourages couples to examine how they handle their emotions and the deep, underlying issues that might be affecting their ability to understand, label, help and communicate their emotions. Kinsey says that EFT is the most research-validated form of couples therapy for lesbian and gay couples, and new research suggests it’s also good for couples working through bisexual and transgender issues as well.
“It’s important to conceptualize communication as an umbrella that encompasses a lot of different skills,” Kinsey says.
“Communication, as an umbrella concept, will improve any relationship, romantic or otherwise,” he adds, but the key is understanding the problems that directly challenge our ability to handle our emotions.
Towards that end, Kinsey suggests several key pieces to aiding our relationship communication. Here they are:
1. Understand that most emotional issues in LGBT relationships are related to trauma and abandonment
Though he calls it a generalization, Kinsey says, “Pretty much every LGBT couple I’ve worked with has had to confront and deal with their fears of mistrust and abandonment that are deeply rooted in experiences of abandonment and betrayal from friends and family.”
Once he helps LGBT couples reframe their “problems of communication” as “problems of emotion regulation rooted in abandonment fears,” Kinsey says, he sees quick and impactful changes.
2. Identify, regulate, and understand your emotions in the moment.
Kinsey says that it’s easy for us to get caught in cycles of blame with our partners with statements like, “You did this,” “You’re an idiot,” or “You made me feel bad.”
Whether those things are somewhat true, Kinsey says, they’re not effective at helping people connect.
Rather that lashing out, Kinsey suggests searching within ourselves to understand what’s going on inside. “Once we realize what’s happening within us, we can explain how what happened from outside of us affected the inside,” he says.
So instead of statements like the ones above, Kinsey says that communication that’s more aware of the speaker’s internal emotions might sound like this:
I feel afraid that you don’t love me, and I feel that way because I am vulnerable to experiences that challenge my self-worth. I am vulnerable to these, because I’ve been taught my entire life that my worth lies in how ‘beautiful’ I am. So, any time I think you’re even remotely attracted to someone else, I don’t just feel jealous; I feel abandoned. I feel abandoned, because my family did abandon me, because they thought that my sexual orientation was more important than my inherent worthiness as a person. I need to learn to handle this experience, to accept my inherit self-worth, and I need your help.
Notice the use of “I” statements and the explanation of how the speaker’s past experience informs their present. Also, they vulnerably ask for help working through the challenge rather than simply putting the responsibility totally on the listener.
Kinsey says, “If you can learn to communicate in this way, it will revolutionize your relationships. Period.”
3. Examine your role in what’s bothering you.
When we asked Kinsey the best way to address things we’re personally ashamed of or a partner’s behavior you find bothersome without letting emotion overwhelm us, he said, “This question cuts directly to the heart of the matter, but I would reword it: ‘How do we regulate our emotions when discussing difficult topics that might challenge our or our partner’s self-worth?’”
While he suggests seeing a qualified therapist to help with such challenging conversations, he also suggests, “You need to make sure you’re actually talking about something they need to change. First, examine yourself, and ask yourself honestly if you are as big of a problem as they are.”
He continues, “Nine times out of 10, the answer is yes. If you focus on changing yourself, it will be much easier for you to discuss what you need from your partner.”
Kinsey’s suggestion for further reading on couple’s communication
We also asked Kinsey how he feels about the Gary Chapman book, The Five Love Languages which posits that every person has a way that they best communicate and receive love, such as physical touch, words of affirmation, receiving gifts, acts of service and quality time.
He says while Chapman’s theory can help give people an example of how to see and acknowledge ways our partners may be different than us, he suggests the books of Sue Johnson, one of the key developers of EFT. He suggests starting with her book Hold Me Tight as a more accurate guide for how to help your relationship.
“Largely, if we want to change our relationships,” Kinsey says, “we have to change our relationship to our emotions, learn to open ourselves to vulnerability without being overwhelmed, then see and help our partners do the same. If we can successfully navigate this dance, we will transform ourselves and our relationships.”
Featured image by VladOrlov via iStock