Couples Therapy Insight: Improving Couples Communication

Allow me to set the stage: two partners are bickering over some basic disagreement that probably means more to one of them than the other. They love and care for one another and probably don’t want to be in conflict, yet they repeat the same cycle of conflict, over and over again. The question then is: why do they engage in conflict in the first place?

This could be for a number of reasons, most commonly because:

1) They are not feeling heard or understood

Often communicated by: Wanting more conversation, raising voice to try and be heard and “could you try just listening to what I have to say for once?!”

2) They feel as if they are giving more to the relationship and want their partner to reciprocate

Often communicated by: Nagging and/or blaming. “If you would just _________”.

3) They feel the need to “fight the battle to win the war,” in essence believing that if they can win this “stand-off” it somehow makes for better relationship dynamics in the future

Often communicated by: Getting unnecessarily defensive over a minor dispute. “I’m not doing _______”.

4) They are tired, hungry, or irritated

Often communicated by: Frustration over minor inconveniences. “Uggghhhh!…”.

5) They are stressed out and wanting some relief and/or affirmation

Often communicated by: Emotional display, call for attention, and/or wanting to talk. “Honey, can we please __________”.

6) They do not feel as though their partner is being open and honest with them

Often communicated by: Suspicion/invasion of privacy. “Show me _________” “Tell me _________”.

7) They don’t feel as though the relationship is “where it once was” or “where it should be”

Often communicated by: Dissatisfaction. “I wish we could just __________” “Why can’t we __________”.

8) They are distancing themselves because they want their partner to pursue them

Often communicated by: Silence/edginess, quick abrupt responses.

9) They don’t want to feel powerless or taken advantage of

Often communicated by: Escalating, loudness, and bullying.

10) They feel as though a past conflict is unresolved

Often communicated by: Bringing up the past, making every conflict about “but you did __________”.

11) They want to know you love them more than you love being right

Often communicated by: “Why can’t you just admit ___________”.

So how can we respond differently when experiencing difficulty communicating? One approach I’ve found helpful is ASKing!

A.S.K.= Healthier Communication

(A)ffirm your partner + (S)hare your Thoughts/Feelings + (K)ey Issue(s) = Healthier Communication.

Now that we understand some of the basic precipitating factors to relationship conflicts, we can look at basic responses that can help resolve these emotional tensions and help partners speak to each other’s emotional needs:

Step One: Affirm.

Using affirming language means to acknowledge your partner’s point of view and try to understand what they are going through. It can essentially be thought of as “mirroring” their thoughts and feelings with your words.

Examples: “I can see that my actions really upset you. I know this is especially important for you and it didn’t seem like I was taking it seriously.” “I get that you are confused and upset right now, that makes sense to me. If I were in your shoes I would feel the same way.”

Step Two: Share your thoughts and feelings that contributed to the conflict (Using “I” statements).

This might take some time, especially if you are still emotional and defensive. Take some time to think through what you would’ve liked to have done differently. This “disarms” the conversation by letting your partner know you take full ownership of your actions and helps them to do the same.

Examples: “I felt as though I was being attacked and I got defensive without even really thinking it through. I know I shouldn’t have, but I guess I just didn’t think it through before responding.” “I wish I could’ve responded differently. I guess it caught me off guard and I reacted out of defense.” “I only wanted to help, but I realize now that my way of helping was not what you needed at that time.”

Step Three: Focus on the Key Issues at hand, try not to get distracted by outside or unrelated events.

It is vital at this point that each partner begins to set aside their ego, seek a “common ground,” and begin to feel united in their cause. This is the point at which each partner can say “we are a team” rather than feeling like competing individuals and then create a plan/solution for whatever conflict you’re facing.

Examples: “As much as I can see what happened, I’m wondering what we can do to handle this differently in the future.” “What if we tried…” “How would you feel about…” “What if I…” “Could we just try…and if that doesn’t work we’ll try…” “Let’s make a plan together, let’s both list 3 ‘must-haves’ and then we’ll go from there.” “I know this is more important for you than it is for me and I want to support you.”

Don’t be discouraged or upset if the solution process isn’t perfect. The concern isn’t negotiation and trying to get your partner to come as far as possible; it’s about meeting each other’s emotional needs and working together to make creative changes. Your communication tools and creativity will need to adapt to fit problems and conflicts you will encounter, and more often than not, trial and error will be your best bet in the solution step.

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