Carolyn, 42, sits across from her husband, Henry, 45, in my office, as they discuss their challenges with candor and empathy. Since Henry was laid off from his job as a restaurant manager, during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have struggled with finances while raising three children on one salary. As we discuss ways to manage stress and reduce their spending, Carolyn expresses concern for Henry’s well-being.
Carolyn put it like this: “Henry is a wonderful father and husband and has worked hard in the restaurant industry for over two decades. In the state of New York where we live, hundreds of people have lost their jobs in the hospitality industry and my husband has suffered as a result. I want to support him in any way I can to land on his feet again.”
Indeed, both self-compassion and compassion toward your partner can help you better understand yourself and your ability to set and maintain healthy communication. In turn, it will also bring about an increased ability to treat your partner the way you want to be treated when you experience difficulty. As Carolyn speaks about Henry’s recent job loss, it’s clear that she doesn’t blame him and wants to be supportive as he bounces back. She realizes that anyone can experience hardship and she remembers being unemployed herself shortly before getting married. Fortunately, Carolyn understands that a job loss is not easy but it doesn’t have to define them as a couple or destroy their marriage.
It seems a simple yet surefire formula for successful communication is mutual understanding, and Dr. John Gottman’s writing on the subject is sure to unlock a whole new set of tools for couples seeking successful and healthy communication. In fact, 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 Dr. John Gottman’s 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.”
In Carolyn and Henry’s case, they didn’t have good role-models for expressing compassion and when they first came to our counseling sessions. In fact, they used to dig their heels in and assert their opinion without listening to their partner’s perspective and taking responsibility for their part in a miscommunication or argument.
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.
Given these insights, I believe that it’s important to pause when you experience intense emotions, decide if you are feeling upset from past insults, or your partner’s behavior in the present. The more intense your emotion, the more likely it’s baggage from your past impinging on your present mood and reaction to your partner’s comments or actions.
According to Schiener, 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.” 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, and allow you to repair conflict as it arises, rather than letting resentment fester and give rise to even an even bigger emotional divide.
Second, Schiener extols the virtues of what she calls “self-compassion.” Indeed, it’s 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.”
Like all challenges in life, job loss and financial stress can definitely alter a couples lifestyle for awhile and strain their coping skills. However, Carolyn and Henry were able to use counseling as a vehicle to strengthen their marriage by learning to show appreciation to each other’s strengths, rather than focusing on their limitations. In the end, all couples will suffer some type of hardship and can learn to whether the storms by fostering healthy communication based on mutual understanding and compassion.
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 book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020.