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Communication Approaches in Relationships

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Communication Approaches

3D figures with chat bubblesTrust and affection are the glue that hold couples together. Healthy partners communicate these positive feelings towards each other via words and gestures in a cyclical manner that breeds more positive communication. Chronically conflicted couples lose trust between the partners, affection suffers and communication between partners takes on a more negative, defensive and demanding tone. Marital therapists teach conflicted couples communication skills designed to help them interrupt their negative communications and replace them with more positive (or at least neutral) ones.

  • "I" Statements. Chronically conflicted partners frequently find themselves in escalating verbal fights during which they accuse and curse each other. One attack leads to another in a vicious circle of undesired but seemingly unavoidable blows. In the midst of this violence partners forget that the best way out of a fight is to be mutually vulnerable; to share hurt feelings and invite help rather than to accuse and attack. In this vein, therapists pay careful attention to how couples fight, and may suggest alternative ways that couples can speak to each other that might minimize fights. For example, when one spouse has forgotten (yet again) to pick up milk on the way home, his or her partner may see this as evidence of that spouses' thoughtlessness and lack of concern and go on the attack, "That was a thoughtless thing for you to do". The recipient of this sort of accusing, attacking message is likely to become defensive or even to attack back. A very different reaction would be expected, however, if the original communication was less attacking and more communicative of the underlying hurt and betrayal experienced, " When you come home without the milk, I feel like you don't care about me". This second type of message, phrased in the first person (which is why it is called an "I" statement) communicates feelings rather than accusations. It elicits a helpful, supportive response rather than a defensive one, and helps to defuse potential fights and arguments. "I" statements work wonderfuly when people are able to remember to produce them before and during battle. The big problem with "I" statements is that people don't remember to produce them.
  • Focal, Not Global Criticism. In healthy marriages partners are able to forgive each other mistakes and preserve an overall positive impression of each other. In troubled marriages repetitive transgressions and disappointments can lead partners to form more negative impressions of each other which in turn degrade their mutual trust and affection. As a consequence of this process, partner's criticisms tend to turn from specific complaints (e.g., "you forgot to bring milk") to general (sometimes over-general) conclusions which may be exaggerated (e.g., "you don't care about me at all"). It may be the case that a spouse who forgets milk doesn't care about his or her partner, but it may also be the case that this milk-forgetting spouse is distracted by work or other pressing concerns. A generalized lack of caring doesn't necessarily follow from a series of milk delivery failures but it can be human nature to think that it does. As it only makes sense to not want to be in an intimate relationship with someone who doesn't care about you, it is in the interest of the marriage that such generalized and exaggerated conclusions be discouraged. In the service of this goal, a therapist may encourage his or her clients to stick to the indisputable facts (that milk was not delivered) and to not draw conclusions from these facts which might be mistaken.

  • Traffic Control; Active Listening and Repeating. Chronically arguing couples often become so involved in defending themselves, correcting the mistakes and exaggerations their partner has accused them of, and figuring out what they're going to say next that they forget to listen and respond to what their partner is really saying. Conversation becomes exhausting and impossible, but because nobody is listening, the urge is there to speak louder as though an increase in volume or rhetoric will somehow get through better (it doesn't).

    Therapists act as traffic cops and teach active listening skills to counter partner's obsessive defensive arguing. To enable both members of a couple to speak and be listened to, a therapist will set up and enforce times when each partner can speak and the other partner is asked to listen. The type of listening the therapist wants to encourage is called 'active listening' because it involves a state of actually paying attention to what is being said (rather than merely not speaking). The therapist will shut down any attempts by the listening partner to interrupt the speaker. When the speaker is through speaking, the therapist may ask the listener to repeat back the gist of what was said so that the speaker can know that they were understood. A process of correction may occur if the the speaker still feels misunderstood. Over repetitions of this exercise, taking turns amongst the partners so that each gets to speak and listen equally, the listening partners (ideally) learn to calm down, put themselves mentally into their (speaking) partners' position and open their minds to what is being said. Ideally, the couple will learn to do active listening and repeating to demonstrate understanding on their own without need of the therapist's intervention. Helping the partners to feel understood by one another may not solve their problems (fundamental differences in desires and goals may be uncovered in this process), but it does help the partners to better clarify what their problems actually are.

  • Interpretation. While teaching couples ground rules and procedures for how to communicate effectively, therapists may also help couples to better understand each other by offering the couple their outsider's informed opinion as to why each partner has chosen to act as they have. Interpretation has to be accurate in order to be helpful, so therapists will often spend a fair amount of time getting to know the partners before offering it. When given, interpretations will also generally be offered in the form of a possibility for the partners to consider that they may not have thought of before and not as an absolute truth. A helpful interpretation might offer partners a new way of looking at their behavior that helps them to get away from being adversaries. For example, a therapist might link back one partners desire for stability to his or her parent's alcoholism, perhaps allowing the other partner to empathize and understand for the first time how that desire for stability came to exist rather than viewing it as merely an annoying aspect of their partner's character.