What blocks effective communication in a relationship?

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” –George Bernard Shaw

If you ask couples what they could improve in their relationship, the most common answer would probably be communication.  Many of us seem to struggle from time to time with being able to express ourselves clearly and to understand our partners.  When I work with couples, one of the analogies I often use is that of an iceberg.  I explain that they can only see the very tip of their partner’s iceberg.  Above the water is the behaviors and actions that they can see.  Under the water is where the majority of the iceberg is hidden.  These are the memories, thoughts and emotions that our partner holds.  At the waterline is where communication lies.  Communication is the bridge between what a person is experiencing internally and how they express it externally.  When there is limited communication, partners are left to guess at what the other is feeling based on the behaviors and actions that are witnessed.  Unfortunately, many of the assumptions that we make about our partner, based on what we see, are simply not accurate.

What makes it so difficult for us to communicate effectively?  These are the two most common reasons I have seen:

The first is an assumption that one partner already knows how the other is feeling.  In my work with couples, I often hear partners say that the other should know how they are feeling.  While we clearly know how we are feeling, I think we often forget that others aren’t experiencing situations in the same way that we are.  Just because a situation makes us angry or excited, I think we often expect everyone else to feel the same way, so we don’t bother to talk about it.  Along with this is a tendency to express our emotions one time and then to expect the partner to know it.  I often hear this when partners complain about not being told that they are appreciated or loved.  The conversation sounds like, “Why don’t you ever tell me that you appreciate what I do?”  Which gets responded to with, “I do, I told you that time when you…”

The other reason is a fear of being vulnerable.  When we express our thoughts, emotions, embarrassments and shames, there is a risk that our partner will reject or criticize us.  Many of us have had experiences where we shared something personal and were vulnerable with another person, only to be betrayed by them.  That experience often results in a hardening to protect ourselves from going through that experience again.  The problem is, the brick wall we build so that we don’t get hurt also stops love from penetrating fully.  The fear of sharing vulnerable emotions is met with frustration and anger which often adds bricks to the wall instead of knocking them down.  It is frustrating for both partners when there is a breakdown in communication.

Communication is critical in every healthy relationship.  Next week I will discuss some ways to improve communication.

How to deal with stonewalling in a relationship

“The course of true love never did run smooth.” –William Shakespeare

This week we will look at the last of Dr. John Gottman’s ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,’ stonewalling.  Of the four horsemen, this is the most infuriating for most people to deal with.  Stonewalling is when one of the partners simply shuts down and refuses to engage with their partner.   For the partner trying to connect, the stonewalling reaction creates a sense of fear, anger or despair.  It is as if they have lost their partner.  Gottman has found that approximately 85% of the stonewallers in his research were males.  One of the interesting things he found with stonewalling is that when he talked to the people who were doing the stonewalling, their intent was simply to not to make things worse.  Many explained that they stayed quiet thinking that it would help the situation and their partner would calm down easier if they stopped responding.   

As humans, we are social creatures.  We are wired for connection.  In studies with infants, when a caregiver stops responding and simply stares at the baby, the baby becomes distressed.  Our body physically responds to the distress and we go into reactionary mode.  The antidote that Dr. Gottman recommends is to notify your partner that you need some time away and to then find something relaxing and enjoyable to do for at least 30 minutes.  This self-soothing is critical to calming our central nervous system and reactivating our mental ability to think and reason.  In one of Dr. Gottman’s studies he actually had couples get into an argument and when the partners were highly reactive he pretended that there was an issue with the equipment.  He instructed the couples not to talk until they got the equipment fixed.  They allowed the partners to get a drink or snack and read magazines during this time.  When they resumed, the couples were able to focus on the problem and come to a solution quickly.  He noted that time away, especially with stonewalling is critical for successful resolution of problems.

If these four horsemen sound all too familiar in your relationship, it does not mean that all is lost.  Becoming aware of the patterns and giving them a name is the first step to resolving them.  Help each other notice when the horsemen are in play and soon they will visit less often.

What is the antidote for defensiveness?

“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.” –Stephen Covey

Defensiveness is a normal human reaction.  We all get defensive from time to time when we feel that we are under attack.  While it is normal to feel defensive, in a relationship it often becomes an unhealthy pattern of behavior.  Defensiveness is the third of John Gottman’s  ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.’ Take the following exchange for example, “We’re always late!  Why can’t you ever be on time for anything?” Which gets a reply of, “What do you mean I’m always late?  You are the one who can never leave on time!”  From this point the conversation goes downhill.  I envision defensiveness as a shield that gets raised whenever we feel that our partner’s words are like daggers.  We then load our own arsenal and begin firing back.  In defensive mode, it is all about self-protection and in order to protect our self we need to blame our partner or make them wrong in some way.  It becomes a war of words, in which there is no winner.

So, how do you get out of the battle of defensiveness and put down the weapons? Dr. Gottman’s antidote for defensiveness is responsibility.  Taking responsibility disarms our partner.  In the previous example of being late, if the partner had responded with taking responsibility it may have sounded like, “You are right, I was not paying attention to the time and I realize that I need to be more aware of what needs to be done before we leave next time.”  It sounds easy to take responsibility, but it is not natural.  Often, we don’t feel that it is our fault.  We truly believe that the problem lies solely in our partner.  It takes a good deal of self-awareness in order to take responsibility.    One of my favorite scriptures from the Bible is Matthew 7:3 which asks, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”  It is much easier for us to see the faults of others then it is to take responsibility for our own shortcomings.  For us to grow, we need to become curious about ourselves.  When our partner fires a complaint at us, becoming curious instead of defensive can stop the battle.  By taking a moment to reflect on the partner’s complaint and exploring it with genuine curiosity, we are often able to find something that we can take true responsibility for.  This is completely different from the martyr saying, ‘Just blame me, it is always my fault.’  Martyrdom is just another form of defensiveness.  Taking responsibility is truly listening to what your partner is saying and becoming curious about what can be done to resolve the problem.  How different would your relationship feel with both partners taking responsibility?

Next week I will explore the last of the four horsemen, Stonewalling.

How to deal with contempt in a relationship

“Teach not thy lip such scorn, for it was made For kissing, lady, not for such contempt.” –William Shakespeare

The second of the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ is contempt.  This is not just criticizing your partner, it is tearing them down.  Contempt is name calling and blatant disrespect.  It is hitting below the belt, pushing their buttons and bringing up the past.  It is also mocking your partner and displaying an air of superiority in the relationship.  When couples are in contempt there is a toxic air between them.  Dr. John Gottman has noted a correlation between couples who are in contempt and the number of infectious diseases the partner suffers from.  As he studied couples he has found that contempt actually erodes the immune system of an individual.  Contempt physically and mentally breaks down a partner.  It is the most destructive of the four of the horsemen and is the greatest predictor of divorce.

A partner who engages in contempt sees the world through the lens of negativity.  Almost anything can become the target of contempt.  So how do you deal with contempt?  Appreciation is the antidote.  It is through respect and appreciation for your partner that healing can begin to occur.  This sounds easy, but it takes conscious effort to remove the lens of negativity and begin to see things that your partner is doing right.  One of the things that Dr. Gottman recommends when partners are stuck in contempt is to begin by talking about positive aspects of the relationship.  It can be discussing positive or funny moments that have stood out during the marriage or how you were able to work through a difficult time together.   It can also be reconnecting through activities that you used to enjoy.  What were the activities that you both enjoyed in the early days of the relationship?  Was it playing a board game together, going for a hike, bowling?   When couples begin to talk positively about their partner, and with their partner, the pattern of negativity is interrupted.   As I work with couples, I often talk about how couples need to get into a groove, but not a rut.  It is like the groove in a record, but often couples get caught in a skip.  They repeat the same behavior over and over.  All too frequently, it is destructive contempt that is skipping.  It takes work to recognize the negative pattern and courage for both partners to begin reconnecting through respect and appreciation.

Are you ready to move the needle on the record to the next song?  It is not easy, but it can save your marriage and your health if you are ready.  Next week I will discuss the third ‘Horseman of the Apocalypse’ which is defensiveness.