Almost every couple that reaches out to me for help will say that they need help with “communication.” They understand that even though they are talking together or expressing themselves (often loudly), they aren’t really communicating.
This breakdown in communication stems from couples employing inappropriate strategies to resolve their conflicts. This often plays out in my client sessions. For example, Partner A may start off by expressing how upset they are about their lack of budget, Partner B will respond with defensiveness and all of a sudden, we are in an argument about how Partner A is controlling and Partner B won’t take accountability for their actions and the budget issue is long forgotten.
When it comes to identifying ineffective communication strategies, I will often refer to Dr. John Gottman and Terry Real, who are both published relationship experts in the field. Listed below are 8 commonly used, yet unproductive communication tactics that couples will use to resolve conflict.
Which of these occurs in your relationship?
- Defensiveness: No one will get through conflict by taking the “but I” position. Our partners will often be our mirrors in to who we are. It does not feel good when our partner calls us out on our laziness, procrastination, lack of initiative, etc. Our natural instinct is often to go in to defense mode. If you are often getting defensive, you are not taking responsibility for yourself and if you are not taking responsibility for yourself, you are not making an effort to grow. Positive growth and change are needed to build healthy relationships, but that is for another blog topic.
- Criticism: According to Gottman, women tend to be the perpetrators of using criticism. Your partners will mess up and so will you. How you point out your partner’s faults and how often you do so can make the difference in the energy that is created in the relationship. Gottman states that it is important that for every one negative interaction there are five positive ones. If you find yourself criticizing your spouse more often than you are being supportive or appreciative, it can leave your partner feeling pretty defeated and resentful. It is important to express your needs and how you would like to be supported in a more affirmative way. I encourage spouses to assert themselves while cherishing the other.
- Stonewalling/Withdrawal: This is a tactic that men will use more often than women. Stonewalling is ascribed to someone who becomes unresponsive in an argument or will walk away. The reason that this is not a good tactic to use is because it sends a message to your partner that “you do not care.” It may very well be that you care a lot and are not responding because you are defeated or scared, but that is not what your partner is seeing. If you are feeling flooded and do not feel like you can continue to have a productive conversation, Terry Real encourages partners to take a “responsible withdrawal.” A responsible withdrawal consists of two steps, 1. State why you are walking away and 2. State when you will be returning. It may look something like this, “I am feeling angry and overwhelmed, I need to take a break for 20 minutes.” If the argument was really heated, I encouraged couples to not touch that topic for at least 24 hours.
- Contempt: This is an absolute killer, according to Gottman. I call this the “loss of respect” strategy. If you find yourself mocking, eye rolling or on the “one up” of your partner, you are putting yourself above them, no one will respond positively to this position.
- Need to be right: There is a common saying that states, “you can either be right or you can be married, but you can’t be both.” I will often see couples get lost in trying to prove their position to one another. No one will win unless each person creates a space to hear the other out. One of the things I encourage couples to do is create a better understanding of one another. I will urge for the person in the listener’s position to respond with “what I’m hearing you say is…” before they build their own defense.
- Need to control: If I had a dime for every time I reminded someone in my office that the only person you will ever be able to control in this relationship is your own self, I might have been able to retire. People do not respond well to being controlled, I have yet to see a happy relationship where one person is being controlled. The party that is being controlled will often times just get resentful and the person who is doing all the controlling just ends up frustrated.
- Retaliation: This can come in the form of direct retaliation or passive. When it is the latter a wife may refuse sex with her husband because he did not do the dishes when she asked. Direct retaliation will look something like this, “I’m going to respond to you in the same rude way you just responded to me, we’ll see how you like it.” At EDGE Counseling Solutions, we recommend that if you are wanting your partner to respond with love and kindness, then avoid perpetuating bad behavior.
- Unbridled Self-Expression: I understand that venting can feel good because it can help you unload all your anger, unfortunately, it will not help you build an intimate connection you’re your spouse. Speaking the truth requires the use of tact and compassion. For instance, if you are angry at your wife for forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning, saying “you are the most forgetful, irresponsible, self-absorbed bitch I have ever met,” may not really help your wife take responsibility for her “forgetfulness,” in fact, this is more likely to get you a nice spot on the couch to sleep on.
If you are guilty of any of these unproductive communication tactics or are recognizing them occurring with your partner, this might be a sign that your relationship could benefit from couples counseling. At EDGE Counseling, we deal with a variety of different relationship issues. We take a tailored approach to each client to assure we provide you with strategies to improve your communication and help you accomplish your goals. No matter your challenge or opportunity, ECS can help you. If you have any questions regarding Couples Therapy, please contact EDGE Counseling Solutions at (224) 676-2317. Please stay tuned for Part Two of this blog covering useful strategies and tactics for communicating effectively with your partner.