couples therapy
imago therapy

When it's time to talk, know what works and what backfires

from publication series OUR RELATIONSHIPS    June 2012

As the years pass in my couples practice and in my own marriage, it becomes ever more clear that certain problems are built in to the marriage relationship, no matter how evolved we try to be. Even when there is love and good intentions on both sides, things do not continuously run smoothly.

Temperament plays a big part in the challenge of keeping things on track. One partner wants more time together, deep talk, intimacy, and activity than the other, and unless he is careful to take his partner’s style into account, he can be, and act, overwhelming and controlling. If he is the more reserved temperament, he has to assure that his partner doesn’t see his need for time alone as a personal rejection.

Sometimes, one of us has mood issues that the other has to be understanding about — like anxiety, depression, or obsessiveness — traits that can lock us into our own world. Our history, of course, also shapes us and makes us supersensitive to certain needs or fears. All of these differences go along with being human, and nobody’s right or wrong. However, even though we know all this rationally, these disconnections still lead to hurt feelings and, in spite of the love between us, some less-than-ideal coping behaviors.

Since these disconnection times are unavoidable, it seems that the best we can do in a relationship that we want to last for the long haul is to agree together that when we’re going through these periods), we will follow certain rules with each other, and that these rules will be sacrosanct.

The obvious first rule is the absolute prohibition against physical aggression, no matter how angry or hurt we are. We also must agree that we will not walk out of the house and disappear for periods of time, that we will not yell and scream, that we will not act out in front of friends or family, and, especially when the kids are there, that we will keep our business between us. This means that there will be periods of time when we both have to be willing to contain our emotions, and perhaps go through the motions until we each calm down and have a chance to talk in a constructive way.

When we finally do sit down, both ready to talk about how we’re missing each other and wanting to figure out how to improve things, there are guidelines to what works and what backfires. Research has found four communication styles that predicted divorce with 91 percent accuracy: first, the “harsh startup,” where conversations get started with anger, sarcasm, or accusations; second is when one or both use criticism, contemptuous tones, defensive reactions, or stonewalling during the talk; third is when one of us just won’t let up, even though our partner is getting emotionally and even physically overwhelmed and shutting down; and last, when talk gets to such a high pitch that, if we were in the doctor’s office, faster heart beat, raised blood pressure, and higher secretions of adrenaline would be measureable.

So, we know what doesn’t work and can figure out from there what would work better. Is this easy? No! It’s a lifetime of self-awareness and effort. But there’s no alternative if we’re committed to each other and want to keep the love alive. That’s why we have to make sure we’re both willing to do this hard work: containing our negative impulses when problems occur and, instead, sharing with our partner the desire for a helpful talk when the time is right.

If we do have this behavioral commitment and can actually see each other trying, the rest of what we need to do becomes much easier. A confidence and assurance that we can trust our partner to handle emotion appropriately creates the feeling of safety that we need above all else. When good times return, we have to nurture those comforting, warm feelings we’re re-experiencing by making sure we tell our partner of our love and appreciation. To say and hear this makes it easier to get even closer; it strengthens the foundation that helps get us through the hard times.

During these good times, we can invite each other to sit down to share what’s going on in our lives — both emotionally and practically. This kind of talk would hopefully become an almost daily practice. It’s when we feel this safety that we can talk about ongoing issues and how to handle them better. When the talk is calm, there’s eye contact, both are able to express what the upset was about and what would help heal things. And we each feel thoughtfully listened to, because we’re using the right connection tools and are on the way back to the good times.

>> read the previous article in the publication series OUR RELATIONSHIPS
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