The number one reason people come to our office for couples therapy is poor communication. Even if couples aren’t aware this is the primary issue, we learn early in the first session that better communication would solve most of the challenges they are experiencing. This is true for newlyweds trying to find their groove, seasoned partners hitting a rough patch, and even ex-couples trying to co-parent better. Many couples are spending more time together than usual because of Covid, working from home, changes in finances, etc. We have been working with a lot of couples lately where one partner feels their concerns are minimized or ignored, they feel forced to shout, scream and act in immature ways to get attention. This brings to light one of the most challenging parts of communication – listening.
Recently, a client described their need to, “act like Regan from The Exorcist” before their partner would listen to their simple request to share chores. This client had asked their partner daily to put their dirty dishes in the dishwasher. Their partner seemed to be listening, but nothing changed, and the client continued to do all the dishes. When the client’s patience and frustration wore out, they reported throwing dishes, breaking them, and screaming at the top of their lungs. Their partner calmly stated that this was an extreme overreaction to a simple issue, leaving the client embarrassed and fearful of losing their mind. On the surface, this was an overreaction. When we look at it from the perspective of communication, both members of the couple could have done better.
Before you get to the point where you want to scream and break things, you must identify how and why you are frustrated with your partner. We all feel anger and frustration differently, but common signs can be clenching teeth, racing thoughts, closed fists, warmth creeping up your neck, thoughts of revenge, and avoidance. Our angry client had the responsibility to follow through with their request when it wasn’t happening, not bottling it up or simply making casual comments. A basic, uninterrupted conversation was in order about why they wanted help, how they thought it could work, and what it meant to them for this to be respected. The client could have asked their partner if they disagree, what they thought was fair, how they thought it should work. At the same time, their partner was not actively listening. They did not indicate if they thought it was unrealistic or unfair. They did not indicate if they planned to follow through. They simply may not have been listening at all.
One of the most useful techniques in communication is active listening. It is simply waiting for your partner to finish talking and then repeating back to them what you heard. Your partner then has the chance to clarify or further explain so both parties are clear. The client is able to respond with how they feel about the scenario and their partner can then repeat back to them what they heard, allowing for any miscommunication to be cleared up.
The point of this technique is not to agree on everything. Dr. Gottman from the University of Washington found that 69% of what couples fight about is never resolved. The point is to have the respect to understand one another and find a common ground, even if it is simply to agree to disagree. If you understand one another and agree on a compromise, then ongoing, unresolved fights become unnecessary. People also minimize the number of trivial arguments which typically damage relationships without resolution.
So, the next time you find yourself fighting over something trivial or overreacting to your partner in a way that surprises you, slow down and share with your partner what is going on and what you are thinking. Use active listening to respond to what they said. Paraphrase their comments so they know you heard them. Clarifying and understanding one another is the foundation of communication. If you do not agree with your partner, that’s fine. Researchers believe that most marital disagreements cannot be resolved. The goal is to understand your partner’s perspective and agree to disagree. This simple technique will diminish conflict and lead to more positive interactions.