In working with relationship issues, many themes recur from couple to couple. “Communication Issues” are often presented as a primary reason to seek therapy.
There are many way to address couples’ issues. Communication issues are often symptoms rather than core issues:
- Are you stuck in a pattern of emotional reactivity?
- Is your partner unconsciously asking you to fulfill a role of some kind?
- Are you replaying family of origin issues in this relationship?
- If infidelity is an issue, is there a fear of intimacy?
Another helpful guide, from The Seven Principles for A Happy Marriage by John Gottman, Ph.D., includes other ways of looking at communication issues and can be a starting place for dialogue in therapy.
According to Dr. Gottman, there are four Conflict Styles to avoid:
- Criticism is a destructive force. A complaint is different from criticism. A complaint focuses on specific behavior but criticism adds in blame and character assassination. Instead, focus your discussion on specifics, not the person as a whole (i.e. What’s wrong with you?)
- Contempt is equally poisonous to a relationship, but is the worst of the four conflict styles to avoid. Contempt includes sarcasm, name calling, eye rolling, mockery and hostile humor. It inevitably leads to more conflict and less resolution.
- Defending is a way of blaming your partner. Research shows that this approach of “the problem isn’t me, it’s you” rarely has the desired effect. The attacking partner usually does not back down.
- Stonewalling usually happens after criticism, contempt and defending has been used to ill effect. At a certain point, one person usually tunes out as a protection against negativity and begins stonewalling.
What to Do Instead:
- Focus on your partner’s attempts to use these conflict styles to avoid their own pain and fear of vulnerability. Really listen to your partner and understand what they are trying to say. Listen beyond the surface for the unmet needs underneath that they are expressing. Do they feel lonely and shut out of your life? If so, they may attempt to get you to pay attention by attacking. Find the compassion in this attempt.
- Use constructive complaints instead of criticism.
- Listen to your body when you are in conflict with your partner. If you feel severe emotional distress when dealing with your partner (i.e. pounding heart, sweating), you may be experiencing emotional “flooding.” Pay attention to it and adjust your approach. Your body is trying to tell you to take responsibility for your part of the conflict and take care of yourself.
- Use repair attempts when you feel flooded. These include saying “Wait, I need to take a break” or “let’s calm down before discussing this.”
It is a good idea to:
- Take a break after 15 minutes to cool down if you feel angry.
- Talk when there are no distractions and both are in agreement that this is a good time.
- Do not name call, yell, insult or bring others into the argument.
- Look for deeper, underlying issues which may be coming up. Frequently, shame and fear about being unlovable or fear of abandonment is the root cause. Find the compassion and understanding for your partner’s fears.
- Talk about your strengths as a couple; why you came together in the first place.
- Talk about your hopes for the future. What do you want the relationship to be?
- Find ways to agree about finding effective solutions to conflicts.
- Develop your own interests, friends and hobbies. Do not rely on your partner to provide your every need. It is impossible for one person to carry that burden.
- Realize that conflict is normal in a relationship. Research shows that some relationships never resolve key conflicts, but are still able to remain happy and committed by avoiding the four conflict styles.
- Don’t try to win arguments. This rarely works and most often damages the relationship in the long run.
- Be willing to accept your part of the issue. The sooner you accept that and verbalize it, the closer you will be to ending the conflict.
- Be willing to be open about your own fears and insecurities. Intimacy is created by sharing these deeper parts of ourselves.