By Kimberly Blaker
Couples split up for numerous different reasons, ranging from lack of common interests and significant life changes to money issues, cheating, and sex. But one of the top reasons couples don’t survive that’s commonly cited by therapists is communication problems.
So it’s essential couples understand the role communication styles play in marital discord. Throughout their relationship, many couples alienate each other as they try to communicate their needs. As misunderstandings escalate, even minor issues can turn into major ordeals. The reason for these serious disputes usually has more to do with the way couples communicate than what they are trying to say.
Fortunately, some factors can be changed if couples put forth the effort, explain Stanley and Howard Markman, coauthors of Fighting for Your Marriage: Positive Steps for Preventing Divorce and Preserving a Lasting Love. These include improving unrealistic beliefs about marriage, low commitment levels, and difficulties working as a team. Of particular note, negative communication styles, poor communication skills for handling disagreements, and attitude differences regarding important issues can also be overcome.
There are five communication styles, according to Ronald B. Adler and George Rodman in Understanding Human Communication. Many of these patterns are devastating to relationships.
Nonassertive communicators tend not to express their thoughts or feelings when conflict arises. They avoid issues or accommodate their partner instead. While non-assertiveness can be used to protect oneself from more harm or embarrassment, this style is often the result of low self-esteem. Alternatively, it may be an inability to communicate one’s own needs.
Two more styles of ineffective communication are direct and passive aggression. A person who uses direct aggression attacks the other through criticism and name-calling. Passive aggression is harder to recognize but equally troubling. A passive-aggressive partner might agree to comply with a request but with no intent to follow through. He may also use guilt, jokes, and withholding as weapons against his spouse.
The indirect approach is another style of communication. A partner may offer subtle hints rather than discussing the issue directly. Sometimes this effectively gets the point across while preventing hurt feelings or a negative response. But it also leads to misunderstandings and the opportunity for the receiver to avoid or ignore the message.
Assertive communicators, according to Adler and Rodman, are the most effective because they are direct and clear about their feelings. They don’t try to control or hurt the other person. Assertive partners may not look forward to some discussions. But they’re able to handle these in a manner that ends positively and leaves couples feeling good about each other.
If you see yourself or your partner in any of the first four styles, you’ve probably experienced many of the problems these styles often create. Quarreling, escaping, and resentment often result. If these problems become too frequent, they can ultimately destroy your relationship.
A Better Approach
Changing old patterns isn’t easy and requires work. But learning to communicate with your partner effectively can be achieved. One method of communication therapists teach clients can make arguing, yelling, and avoidance a thing of the past. Not only do couples learn to communicate more effectively, but they may also develop deeper bonds and intimacy. This can have a lasting effect on your relationship.
This technique, sometimes referred to as Intentional Dialogue, is used in Imago Relationship Therapy. Through this technique, couples learn how to talk to their partner, share feelings, and really hear and understand each other. Also referred to as Couple’s Dialogue, it uses a speaker-listener approach and consists of four steps. Imago Therapist Eleanor Payson A.C.S.W. shares this process in her handout, Making the IMAGO Conscious. But before getting started, there are essential “ground rules” couples must follow.
First, explains Payson, the person who needs to have a discussion must initiate it by making a request for a specific time. Couples often jump into important discussions without making sure it’s convenient for their partner. If the time requested isn’t convenient, your partner should schedule a time better suited to both of you. The discussion should be held within 24 hours.
Also, when making your request for a dialogue, don’t disclose the details. Tell your partner only the topic to avoid undue worry. When the scheduled time arrives, the person making the request is responsible for reminding the other. During your dialogue, stick to the topic, and if other issues arise, save them for later.
Finally, your dialog should consist of four steps: mirroring, summarizing, validating, and empathizing. After you complete these steps, switch roles so that each of you has the opportunity to share your thoughts and feelings.
To begin your dialogue, sit close and facing each other. The first speaker is the person who requested the dialog. During the four-step process, as explained by Payson, the receiver should not interrupt, except to check his understanding of his partner. Furthermore, he should not discuss his feelings, perspective, or anything else until the roles are switched.
The first step is to mirror. After the sender describes her concern, the receiver will mirror what his partner said and then ask if he understood correctly. If he has, he then asks if there’s more. This exchange continues until the speaker has finished.
Next, the receiver summarizes his partner’s discussion and what he believes she’s trying to say. He should then ask if he got it all. If not, the mirroring process continues until he has received all of the important details.
Now the receiver needs to validate his partner by explaining that he understands her feelings and why. If the receiving partner does not yet understand his spouse’s feelings, the mirroring process continues.
Once the mirroring spouse understands his partner’s feelings, it is time to empathize. This means to be able to experience the thoughts and feelings of his partner. Empathy is vital to any relationship as it “allows both partners to transcend, perhaps for a moment, their separateness and to experience a genuine ‘meeting,'” says Payson. “Such an experience has remarkable healing power.”
Therefore, during this step, your partner should indicate he empathizes with your specific feelings. Finally, switch roles and begin the process again.
Taking Care Now
If communication problems are impairing your relationship, don’t wait for irreparable damage. Other effective speaker-listener techniques are available, as well. In Fighting for Your Marriage, Markman, Stanley, and Susan L. Blumberg teach similar communication skills through the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) approach. Look for other good books as well.
Keep in mind that for some couples, therapy may be required.
In her recent book, The Wizard of Oz and other Narcissists, Payson describes the narcissistic personality. Individuals with this disorder may not be capable of empathy, a vital element of these recommended forms of communication. If this may be a problem in your relationship, or for other reasons you and your partner can’t work through this process on your own, look for an Imago or similar type therapist.
Finally, remember, as Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg point out, “Good marriages take work. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not how much you love each other that can best predict the future of your relationship, but how conflicts and disagreements are handled.” So learn these techniques early in your relationship, or before misunderstandings escalate—and you’ll dramatically increase your chance for a successful, long-lasting relationship.