Entries in communication (4)
One of the first things I remember learning in my training as Marriage and Family Therapist is this fact from communication theory:
“One cannot NOT communicate.”
The communication axiom, “One cannot NOT communicate,” has much to say (pun intended).
It is very common in couples that one of the partners has strong tendencies to “freeze” in conflict, “flee” from arguments and potentially difficult conversations. We will call this person the “Withdrawer.” This looks like shutting down, walking out of the room, hanging up the phone, and avoiding discussions.
The emotional trust in a relationship can be greatly damaged by the “communication” of not communicating. Sometimes, the partner married to a “Withdrawer” perceives the thoughts and feelings of the “withdrawer” as inherently selfish and narcissistic.
Here is what partners think the “Withdrawer” is saying:
- “I don’t think you are worth the energy to communicate with.”
- “I don’t care enough for you to do what is difficult for me.”
- “I despise that you are so needy.”
- “My needs are more important than yours.”
Sometimes, the “withdrawer” IS thinking that. That is a whole different blog. More often, I find that the “withdrawer” is simply scared.
For most “withdrawers” I know, they are really thinking and feeling the following:
- “I am scared that I will never please you.”
- “I just freeze and don’t know what to say when you are mad.”
- “You are a better arguer than I am and I can’t think that fast.”
- “I want to make you happy, but I don’t know how.”
Sometimes we need help to get out of communication patterns that we are stuck in. If you are a “withdrawer” or married to one, slow down the conversation and communicate what you are experiencing. Be compassionate and give one another the benefit of the doubt!
I don’t know of anyone that actually likes conflict. I certainly know some who do better at it than others… like my wife, for instance! It’s not that she can out-argue me, it’s just that her perseverance is so much better that I eventually raise the white flag because I, in wimp-like fashion, am too tired to proceed. Doing conflict well is an art, not a science. But there are some things to keep in mind that might help you develop your ability to fight in a productive manner. Here’s the list:
- Keep your communication short… don’t lecture each other.
- Don’t use absolutes (I almost said “Never use absolutes” :)
- Concentrate on listening and not what you’re going to say next.
- Work toward a mutually agreed upon solution, not who will win and who will lose.
If you follow these simple guidelines I am convinced that you will not only see better conflict resolution, but also less volatile conflict when you have it. Last, let me remind you that just because you don’t have a lot of conflict doesn’t mean that it’s not there. Conflict communicated is better than ill-feelings stuffed inside. So when you fight, fight fair!
There is an method of marriage counseling that remains popular among therapists working with couples in conflict. This approach assumes that the key to marital contentment lies in learning better communication skills. A satisfying relationship, according to this view, is the result of better listening, increased empathy, and a focus on conflict resolution techniques.
Here's the truth: You can be a master at conflict resolution and still be miserable in your marriage.
I experienced a particular a-ha moment while attending graduate school, watching the video of a counseling session in which a couple's marital dissatisfaction was being addressed using this conflict resolution method. The session was being presented as an example of good technique, but I was struck by an awareness that after all their counseling, the wife seemed to be no more connected to her husband than before. They had learned how to manage conflict without learning to experience connection.
There is, of course, benefit to learning how to fight better. No one would argue the benefits of controlled anger, empathetic listening, or problem solving. But the benefit of learning these skill tends to be disappointing after a while as a couple realizes they still feel lonely in their marriage. The removal of conflict does not assure the renewal of love.
Psychologist John Gottman is a leader in marriage research and has spent decades studying the characteristics of marriages that flourish and of marriages that fail. His concludes that there is no evidence to support a belief that good marriages are built by learning particular communication styles. A focus on CONNECTION is more important that a focus on communication when it comes to experiencing a healthy marriage.
Simply stated, the question of How can we enhance or friendship? has far greater importance than the question How can we resolve our differences? Rather than focusing on your spouse's inadequacies (and wanting to change them), give attention to the shifts you might make to encourage a more intimate connection. And if you need help, find a counselor that will guide you toward the changes that really matter.
For more information on John Gottman's research and conclusions, read his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
Dissect any argument between a man and a woman and this is probably what you'll find: the conflict has little to do with what each is saying, but much to do with what each is meaning. More specifically, the argument is likely fueled by a misunderstanding of each other's message. They may be using the same words, but they're speaking different languages.
This communication gap between men and women has been researched and documented in every culture. We know it exists, and yet nearly every couple that comes in for marriage counseling acts as though it didn't. Instead of recognizing gender differences, the husband assumes his wife means what he would mean if he spoke her words. And she does the same in return. No wonder they end up frustrated and angry.
So, how can you improve your communication with your spouse? First of all, recognize that real differences exist and stop expecting your spouse to be like you. Next, as soon as you feel another conflict coming on, change your agenda. Switch from your normal goal of winning the argument ("If he/ she would just listen to me...") to the new goal of understanding your spouse. Stop talking, take a deep breath, and speak softly while you say this: I want to understand what you mean and why this is important to you, so please tell me. Then listen... listen... listen. If something isn't clear, ask about it, and then listen again.
Be prepared for this change. Decide to do it now, before you face your next conflict, because waiting until you are in the moment will be too late. If you do this one thing, most of your arguments will be diffused before they turn into a fight.
And men, if you need a little more help you may want to try using The Manslater...