During our couples counseling sessions, Kyla and Kevin discuss their difficulties communicating their needs productively. It seems like they have the same arguments over and over again and they are often left feeling frustrated. Ongoing bickering and miscommunication is a common theme in many of my couples counseling sessions and I often research the topic to help couples reconnect.
In a recent article for The Gottman Institute’s website, psychotherapist Nicole Schiener, looks at the roots and repercussions of communication issues among couples. Referring to the body Dr. John Gottman’s own body of work, Schiener traces the development of unhealthy and ineffective communication in a relationship back to individual partners’ upbringing. She cites that fact that patterns of conflict and abuse are often unconsciously modeled after one’s own parents, and offers tools to help couples get their “relationship back on track.”
Taking a two-pronged approach to solving communication issues, Schiener writes that “repair is necessary before things escalate. For people who experienced trauma, insecure attachment, and a lack of co-regulation, this can be difficult. Trauma, thinking traps, and mistaken beliefs can distort your perception of reality.” In other words, many of our hang ups, unproductive habits and unhelpful methods of communicating are borne of our childhood experiences with our own parents.
But Schiener points out that “knowing what to do and actually doing it are two different things,” and unpacks the two central strategies she has used in counseling couples in conflict. The first practice she preaches that “support[s] the foundation needed for making repairs” is mindfulness. In defining mindfulness, Schiener quotes Jon Kabat-Zinn, writing that mindfulness means “paying attention on purpose to the present non-judgmentally as if your life depended on it because it does.”
Committing to a practice of being in tune with yourself and then turning that attention toward your partner will create a bedrock of “gratitude and genuine interest,” according to Schiener. She further cites Dr. Gottman’s research, noting that this dynamic represents what Gottman calls “the culture of appreciation.” Simply put, showing awareness and real interest in your partner’s inner world will foster healthy communication and growth in your relationships. This will allow you to repair conflict as it arises, rather than letting resentment fester which can give rise to even an even bigger emotional divide.
Second, Schiener extols the virtues of what she calls “self-compassion.” Indeed, it is healthy to understand that we all make mistakes, and “instead of self-criticism that leads to shame and defensiveness, self-compassion makes it easier to acknowledge your part and be open to learning and growing as an individual and a couple.”
This self-compassion helps us better understand ourselves and our ability to set and maintain healthy boundaries, and in turn will bring about an increased ability to treat our partner the way we treat ourselves. It seems a simple yet surefire formula for successful communication, and Schiener and Dr. Gottman’s writing on the subject is sure to unlock a whole new set of tools for couples seeking successful and healthy communication in their relationships. Another common issue that prevents couples from communicating successfully is being distracted by a variety of stimuli in their lives.
Do you believe you have your partner’s attention when you speak to him or her? Are internal factors such as thinking about something else, worrying about bills, or feeling tired, stopping you from focusing on what your mate wants to tell you? External factors, such as children, TV, cell phones, or background noise might also be a big obstacle to effective communication.
Kyla reflects (with anger in her voice): “It seems like Kevin often has the TV on when I’m trying to talk to him. We rarely get to talk and it’s like I have to schedule an appointment to talk to my husband.”
Kevin responds: “Our schedules are just really different. Kyla wants to talk right away when she walks in the door and I like to watch the news and unwind after a long day. I’m not opposed to talking, it’s just bad timing.”
Like Kyla, I often complain that my husband Craig watches too much TV, especially when one of his favorite sports teams from his hometown of Philadelphia is playing. Since I needed to ask him an important question, I was feeling frustrated with his intense focus on the game and ability to tune me out. Fortunately, we had been married for over two decades by then, so I politely asked him to mute the TV for a few minutes so we could chat. In times past, I would have turned off the TV or continued to talk to him while he was watching the game, causing tension between us. But recently, I pause and reflect on the fact that most of my requests can wait an hour and he certainly deserves to enjoy watching sports after a long work week.
Communicating love and admiration to your partner is a hallmark of courtship, yet as married couples settle in to dealing with the stresses of day-to-day life, these comments start to fade in frequency. You may not express gratitude for your partner aloud because it may not come naturally. Instead, you might make a big deal over trivial issues and miss the big picture. Some of the tips below can help you be positive in your communication with your mate.
6 strategies for increasing communication and creating loving intimacy:
- Be sure you first understand, and then seek to be understood. Respond to what your partner is really saying in the moment. Be attuned to their experience, more than your own.
- Freely communicate your admiration and fondness for your partner. You might say, “You are such a special woman (man) and I am lucky to have you as my wife (husband).”
- Catch your partner doing something “right” and compliment him or her for it.
- Practice offering mutual gratitude on a regular basis. For instance, you might say, “I’m so grateful that you work so hard and I can see you had a hard day. I’d like to get you some iced tea and hear about how your day went.”
- Turn towards your partner when they make a bid for attention, affection, or any other type of positive communication. Overtures often display themselves in basic but powerful ways such as a smile or pat on the shoulder.
- Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and express your positive feelings out loud several times each day. In The 7 Principles that Make Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman suggests increasing the number of positive comments you make to your partner. Listen to their point of view and adopt his rule of five- to-one ratio of interactions – meaning for every negative interaction, you need five positive ones.
- Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Feel free to ask a question here.Terry’s forthcoming book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020.