Couples Communication: The Rules

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An experienced couples therapist once told me that “good communication and persistence would cure most problems.” I recall challenging his advice at that time, suggesting that some people marry for the wrong reasons, that sometimes there has been “too much water over the dam” – that is, their problems have persisted and become so complex that they can’t be resolved. Clearly there are a myriad of challenges to developing and maintaining a healthy and balanced relationship. After years of treating a wide variety of couples, I would agree that persistence and good communication are integral components of the coping strategies that couples require as they face challenges in their lives. With these thoughts in mind, here are a few communication basics that may assist you and your partner as you hit the speed bumps of life.

Active listening requires you to repeat the other person’s words in your head as they are speaking. If you practice this technique it forces you to pay acute attention to everything that they are saying. You are actually using active listening right now as you read the words on this page and repeat them in your mind. O.K. you each have one another’s attention so try some other techniques.

Avoid accusations by using “I Statements” like: I think…, I’d like…, I feel…, rather than “You Statements” such as : you never…, you always… . “ You Statements” are accusatory and will result in the escalation of an argument. “I Statements” simply tell your partner about your needs. “I think you’re an idiot” doesn’t work! That is an accusation using “you are” as the preface to your comment. “I am an idiot” would be O.K. – it is an “I Statement” and might be appropriate at the moment.

Stay in the here and now by focusing on the present. Obviously, we can’t change history and ,as someone once said:”those who ignore history are bound to repeat it.” So we may need to work though issues of the past but that is accomplished by using all of the communication techniques in concert with each other. If we want to modify behavior, we can be aware and sensitive to issues in the past but it would be advisable not to beat each other over the head with them. “There you go again just like you did last week(bringing up history), you’ll never change!”(accusation – you statement). This is ineffective and just escalates the argument so let’s agree to focus on the problems as we are experiencing them now. I usually tell couples who are in treatment to only discuss the past when they are in the office and, at least initially, have access to a referee.

Honesty is integral to any relationship. If you don’t have it, there will be problems and a rocky road ahead. This is not just being honest – telling the truth about what you have done or what you are doing. This concept also includes honesty with respect to your feelings. Hopefully, as we have all matured, we realize that it is always easier to tell the truth. So, it is important to express our feelings to one another in an open and honest manner.

Emotional expressiveness is a necessary component of an effective relationship and is often a criticism that individuals level against their partner. That is: “my partner doesn’t tell me how he/she feels.” In fact, effective couples therapy should focus on helping couples to relate to one another on a feelings basis. A useful communication tool is the use of this phrase: “When X.. happens, I feel Y… .” For example: “When you watch the television news at the dinner table, I feel ignored.” This is more effective than: “You’re ignoring me!”(accusation). Remember, accusations may lead to escalation of arguments. So, when your partner says or does something that makes you feel good, or bad, give them feedback.

It is critically important that we are each sensitive to the impact of our behavior on the other person. If we practice this concept in our relationships there would be an improvement in all of our interactions. In addition, both members of the couple must agree to use these techniques or they will not be very effective. Finally, and perhaps obviously, you can’t make a relationship happen by yourself ! If both members of the couple have the same goals, then persistence and good communication will solve most problems.

If you and your partner have reached an impass in your relationship and might benefit from seeing a couples therapist, call the Center for immediate, professional response to your concerns.

Dr. Ken Ellis is the Executive Director for the Columbia Counseling Center