Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Eliminating Destructive Communication Patterns
Couples answering the newspaper ad from the University of Wash-ington "love lab" don't know quite what to expect. The lab techs that work with psychologist-marriage researcher, John Gottman, Ph.D. wire the couples with equipment designed to measure stress reactions. The couples are instructed to discuss a topic of marital conflict while video cameras record the interactions.
These couples have taken the risk to argue in front of a video camera so that the rest of us can learn from their mistakes. And learn we have. By checking in periodically with those brave couples, researchers such as Dr. Gottman can now predict from those lab responses later marital happiness or unhappiness with 90% accuracy.
Particularly powerful as predictors of marital outcomes are occurrences of the following destructive or constructive communication habits. As the line from an old song suggests, make it your goal to "eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive."
- Replace complaints where you merely describe your pet peeves about your partner with requests where you ask for what you need by saying, "I want…, can you do this for me?"
- It is very natural when criticized to get defensive. Instead, maintain openness by listening for that one kernel of truth in your partner's complaints and criticisms. Use active listening (see next article) and gentle questions such as "Tell me more about that" or "Would you like to make a request?"
- Troubled couples show contempt through facial expressions like eye rolling and sneering or sarcasm like saying "whatever." Act respectfully with your spouse like you would with a work colleague.
- Conflicts get out of hand when people get belligerent shouting insults, threatening the relationship, or getting violent. Take a time-out to cool down and imagine you are at work being paid a large sum of money to act calmly in the presence of a difficult customer.
- When our nervous system gets overloaded we want to withdraw from the conflict. Stay connected by using active listening and problem solving. If you do get overloaded, rather than avoiding the topic and each other, take a formal time-out promising to resume discussion at a specified time.
Active Listening: The Key to Staying Connected in the Midst of Conflict
Most people would agree that communication is one of the most essential elements in a vital relationship. Lack of good communication is the most common reason couples seek couples counseling.
Good communication involves both expressing and understanding ideas. While expressing yourself clearly is important, feeling understood is critical to the connection in the relationship. Spouses feel closer and more connected to each other when they take time to really listen to each other. One of Steven Covey's, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to "Seek first to understand, then to be understood," a saying borrowed from St. Francis Assisi.
Here are some tips for becoming a better listener:
- Give the speaker your undivided attention (i.e. eye contact, no distractions like TV or newspapers).
- Ask the speaker to give you the information in small chunks.
- Wait for the speaker to finish before responding.
- Use summarizing statements to rephrase the message you heard from your partner. The speaker has the last word on whether you heard what was intended.
- Use summarizing skills when conversations get tense, confusing, or emotionally overwhelming.
Conflict Management: The Key to Greater Harmony with Your Spouse
Conflict-Normal life or a symptom? How we think about conflict in our relationship is critical to our handling of conflict. Accepting that conflict is normal and inevitable in any relationship will help you approach your disagreements in a matter of fact problem-solving manner. Use creative problem solving to get both partners' needs met as often as possible.
Differences between happy and unhappy couples. According to the research on marital conflict, there are no significant differences in the number or kinds of conflict between couples who rate their marriages as happy or unhappy. All couples occasionally disagree on the same eleven issues including money, parenting, dealing with in-laws, lifestyle choices, spending time together, and other common issues. Take comfort from the fact the no couple disagrees on all eleven, although a man in one of our workshops insisted that he and his wife did. What does differentiate happy from unhappy couples is how they handle conflict.
Handling conflict. Critical elements that differentiate happy from unhappy couples include their ability to listen, show understanding and respect for their partners, maintain control of their emotions, engage in practical problem-solving, and make progress on their issues.
Couples lacking these communication or emotional management skills become discouraged and unhappy when they repeat the same conflicts without making progress. With time and discipline any couple can learn skillful communication by reading, listening to tapes, attending a marriage education workshop, or working individually with a marriage counselor or a relationship coach.
Here are some tips for better conflict management:
- Think about what you want from the discussion?
- Find a good time to talk.
- Use "I" statements to own the problem and feelings, e.g. "I'm feeling overwhelmed by my parenting duties."
- Avoid attacking your partner, or threatening the marriage.
- Use solution-oriented questions like "How can we prevent this from happening again?" or "What do we need to do differently next time?"
- Stay on track---stay in the present.
- Use the steps of problem solving (see resources below).
- Maintain respect, calling a time-out if discussions get too heated.
- Celebrate your successes. These skills are neither easy nor natural.
- Our tape series, Secrets of Extraordinary Marriages, covers communication and conflict management skills in more detail.
- For more tips see: We Can Work It Out by Notorius & Markman and Fighting for Your Marriage by Markman, Stanley, & Blumberg.
Copyright 2000 Drs. Susan & Philip Robison. Feel free to copy and reproduce as long as you print with contact information: