Couples can use the language between them to make love or to make war. Sadly, verbal aggression can be a dangerous trigger to destructive exchanges or even physical violence. Effective communication techniques, on the other hand, help couples manage difficulties and anger in a way that is constructive and adds to relationship satisfaction.
When working with couples to develop more effective communication skills we always ask:
Do you speak in a way that makes your partner listen? Do you listen in a way that makes your partner speak?
If when he walks in she says, “You really don’t get it — I do everything in this house and you do nothing!” There is a very good chance that he will walk right past her into another room, flick on the remote and respond with a comparable put-down.
Essentially this couple would have enacted what is labeled by Christensen and Heavey (1990) as the demand/withdrawal sequence in which a complaint or demand made by a partner in a negative way predictably triggers the other partner’s withdrawal and defensiveness. His refusal to listen and in most cases his actual withdrawal is likely to escalate her negative feelings and “keep her speaking” but not in a positive way. Soon he will be telling her “She never lets up.” The pattern leaves them both feeling victimized and angry. The chances of mutual understanding or positive resolutions are very low.
Effective Couple Communication Techniques
Drawing upon couple communication ideas offered in two of my previous blogs, (Couples Psychological First Aid and Reconsidering the Anger in Your Relationship) we might suggest to her that she communicate her needs at a more appropriate time ( A partner’s first steps into the house are never a good time) and with an “I message” – “I’m not sure I can manage all the chores.” “I think I need some help.”
There is now an increased chance of his listening and even starting a conversation by asking what she means because he has not been put down. In fact, if he is able to use the “Active Listening” technique by putting himself in her shoes and trying to put words to what she feels, he might say – “ So it sounds like this is really too much for you. I guess you need help.”
Generally, at this point the partner is already feeling listened to and will likely clarify her needs. Together they might come up with a plan or some resolution that takes into account both sides with much less anger and negativity.
Another alternative which this partner might use is a “We” description – “I don’t think we figured out a good plan for the chores yet.”
Such comments usually highlight the mutuality and connectedness of the couple and tend to decrease the emotional distance and resistance to a request ( Burr, 1990). One exception is the frequently heard mandate “WE NEED TO TALK” which is rarely effective and almost never experienced as mutual or positive!
The vagueness of a partner’s request is considered a common communication problem because it provides inadequate information. In both of the suggested alternatives, the request is specific. It makes the situation clearer and easier to respond to. It moves the tone and overall sentiment from a global attack of a partner to an expression of need. This results in less resistance and increased relationship satisfaction.
Stepping on the Brakes Together
Given that people are human, despite efforts to speak and listen in constructive ways, there may be those time when feelings get so negative and intense so quickly that if feels like begin caught on a runaway train. We suggest that couples “ step on the brakes together.”
This is an anger management technique that is most effective when understood and agreed upon by the couple in non-stressful times. It involves one or both partners stepping back in the midst of an escalating verbal exchange to ask something like: “Wait a minute!” – “What are we doing?” “Why are we fighting?” “We can find another way to deal with this.” “ We sound like my parents!”
The brake on the runaway argument often offers an opportunity to try more constructive communication techniques, brings in the “We” perspective and allows more time to clarify and process together.
The Five Minute Exchange
It becomes clear when working with many couples, that some are “seasoned fighters” who react to the slightest provocation, say the unsayable to each other and often use fighting as a way of relating. Unfortunately they carry the emotional scares of their painful interactions – as do their children.
A technique that we invite all couples to try-out and use to disrupt persistent negative patterns is “ The Five Minute Exchange.”
Guidelines for The Five Minute Exchange
Couples are asked to choose an issue they have had some conflict with. They are then informed that each of them will have 5 minutes to share with their partner any thoughts or feelings they would like the other to understand about this issue. The other partner is instructed to listen without interruption until the 5 minutes are up, at which point the roles are reversed. The couples are informed that the goal is NOT to settle, resolve or come to any decision about the issue being discussed. The goal is about sharing, listening and understanding in a different way. They are told that if after 2 minutes they feel they have no more to say they should relax and something may come to mind – this is their time and their partner is listening!! ( As this becomes a regular pattern, couples adjust the time to match their styles).
Our experience has been that most couples are at first stumped. They are used to interrupting, provoking and predicting the responses of their partner. After some hesitation most actually entered into “ The Five Minute Exchange.” They reported that knowing they would not be interrupted allowed them to think and share in a calmer way. They found themselves giving thoughts and reasons they had never shared before and really felt the other was listening. Validating this, the listening partners reported that knowing they would have“ their turn” made it easier to listen without interrupting or planning their next attack. All reported that when there was no expectation to make a decision or resolve a conflict – it was easier to speak and listen.
How does this work in life when you don’t have the time for a Back and Forth Exchange and you have to make a decision?
In response to this frequently asked question, we asked couples to estimate the time of their next fight- Was it more than 10 minutes? Did it settle or clarify the issue? Did it re-enforce their ability to handle things as a team? Did it offer some mastery in managing anger? Did it increase the trust in their relationship? Is 10 minutes likely to negatively interfere with any decision in the real world?
In a culture that takes too much of your time for too many things – Give yourself back some time to use effective communication to manage anger in a satisfactory way.
Speak so that your partner listens – Listen so that your partner speaks- And if you need a moment – take it together.
For Further Reading:
Burr, W. R. (1990) Beyond I-statement in family communication. Family Relations, 39,266-273.
Christensen, A., & Heavey,C.L.(1990) Gender and social structure in the demand/withdraw pattern of marital conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,59, 73-81.