Communication is really quite simple, although many people struggle with it, especially couples. Most couples experiencing relationship problems will tell you “we have communication issues.” What that really means is they don’t know how to deal with their own feelings in relation to their partner’s feelings. In an intimate relationship, when one person asserts themselves, that is, expresses feelings, thoughts or actions, it emotionally “pushes” or impacts the other person. In other words, when the other person “receives” the communication, they will have a reaction of some sort, negative or positive. All’s well if it’s positive but if it’s a “negative” emotional response (fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, etc.), then it can be very challenging. This is because the feelings that come up are uncomfortable and difficult to tolerate. Therefore, the natural tendency is to criticize and blame the other person for your feelings. Rather than simply stating how you feel in response to your partner, and expressing that directly, couples in conflict tend to get into a “victim” pattern and make each other responsible for their own inner experience (feelings). This often leads to what John Gottman calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” sequence – criticism – contempt – defensiveness – stonewalling. The solution for this is to be more aware of your own feelings and practice expressing them responsibility.
In the Calgary Couples Clinic, I teach my clients how to do this. It’s goes likes this:
1. Express your feelings openly and directly. Use a soft start up approach and avoid criticism.
2. Validate your partner’s feelings. Don’t rebut, argue, make them wrong, etc. Take responsibility for your part of the problem.
3. Demonstrate respect and kindness. Practice the 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions.
Simple but not always easy to do! I’ll have much more to say about this later…