“Can you teach us to communicate better?” the woman asks as she and her husband begin arguing in their first therapy session. They’ve come to a relationship expert because they often reach angry standoffs like this one. They want to learn skills to help them resolve their differences.
The problem is, most “relationship skills” are of limited benefit in your most important relationship. Self-help books, workshops, and therapeutic approaches that teach communication and conflict resolution skills can often be helpful in the workplace, with friends, and with family members who are overstepping their bounds.
But when the goal is to feel a genuine, loving connection with your partner, communication skills such as making good eye contact, using “I” statements, active listening, and quid pro quo (agreeing to each do something for the other) have limited benefits. These techniques can bring a brief respite from daily arguments, but consider these pitfalls.
The Pitfalls of Skill Development
- Your partner is not your barista: When you order a coffee, your experience is probably a little more pleasant when the barista smiles and tells you to have a nice day. You don’t care if he or she learned to say this in a corporate training because your relationship is unimportant. But if your partner responds to your hurt with, “I understand how you feel,” it’s crucial to know if this is a communication “technique” or an accurate statement. Is your partner trying to calm you down or does he or she really get why you’re hurting? If your partner seems to be using a technique rather than speaking from his or her heart, you may feel belittled rather than calmed.
- Nonverbal messages are powerful and often outside our conscious control: Nonverbal cues such as tone of voice, facial expression, and body language reveal more about how a person really feels than words. These cues are much harder to “teach” than words because they are less within our conscious control. When verbal and nonverbal messages conflict, we intuitively believe the nonverbal one. Evolution has hardwired this preference into our brains: we register nonverbal messages much more powerfully than words.
- Many people who communicate destructively with a partner have good “communication skills” in other settings: Teaching communication skills to distressed couples would make some sense if these couples had a skill deficit. But many people in distressed relationships communicate well at work, with friends, or in other less emotionally charged settings. It is only with the person who matters most that they become enraged, defensive, or highly critical on a regular basis. Many people in distressed relationships have the skills to communicate well, but when the situation is emotionally charged, they may be temporarily unable to access those skills.
- Learned skills are not accessible when people need them the most: Using skills requires people to use higher-order thinking instead of reacting emotionally. But when emotions are intense, higher-order thinking can be difficult to access. And emotions run highest when one’s investment and need are greatest. In other words, at the time you most need to use your communication skills, and with the person with whom you have the most at stake, you may be least likely to access the skills you are trying to learn.
- Even when skills are consistently used well, their benefits are limited: When couples are able to implement new communication skills over months or years, they may argue less, but they do not necessarily feel less lonely, more connected, or more loved. Communication and conflict resolution skills do not create the kind of loving bond most people yearn for.
An Alternative Approach
Does all this mean you can’t improve your relationship if you and your partner get stuck in repetitive patterns of anger or disengagement? Absolutely not! But be wary of overly structured, simplistic interventions.
Here are some of the “skills” needed to repair a distressed relationship.
- How to step back from flashpoint topics and see deeper into each other’s hearts: Fights are rarely really about the laundry, the kids, or the finances. And the anger or coldness on the surface is rarely the whole story. Anger and defensiveness come readily to the surface, especially when one feels threatened, misunderstood, or abandoned by someone important. Unless a person has fully checked out of a relationship, these surface reactions mask more painful, vulnerable emotions, such as hurt, sadness, loneliness, and fear of abandonment. Change begins by learning to recognize universal yearnings to be cherished, protected, and understood that underlie surface emotions and behaviors.
- How to overcome the tunnel vision that results when you feel threatened, betrayed, or rejected by your partner: This tunnel vision is a nicely evolved survival mechanism that kicks in when your physical or emotional well-being feels under attack. It allows you to fully focus on self-defense without wasting valuable seconds on examining the bigger picture or understanding your attacker’s perspective. But in love relationships, this automatic response may keep you mired in conflict. The more you focus on self-defense, the more threatening you look to your partner, and the more threatening you look to your partner, the more he or she focuses on self-defense. Distressed couples need to learn how to step back from this automatic response, enlarge their perspective, and recognize their partner also has a valid perspective. This is the first step toward engaging in a dialogue that truly resolves conflict.
- How to create safety so your partner can risk speaking vulnerably from his or her heart: If you want to truly understand your partner’s perspective, you have to learn how to stop putting him or her on the defensive. Your partner may experience your attempts to defend yourself as attacks on him or her. Only when your partner is convinced you really want to listen and understand, and will not attack, dismiss, or belittle his or her feelings, will he or she risk opening up about more vulnerable feelings and needs.
- How to reach vulnerably for your partner, and ask for the love and understanding you desire: It’s scary to speak of your innermost fears, desires, and needs. What if you hold your heart out to your partner and he or she is critical or dismissive, or, worse yet, ridicules you? It’s so much safer to attack, complain, or shut down. But only by risking this kind of vulnerability can you leave behind the old cycle of attack and defend and begin a new conversation of connection and love.
- How to respond to your partner’s attempts to reach for you with openness and encouragement: As hard as it is to speak from your heart to your partner, it may be equally hard to receive your partner’s attempts to reach you. You may still be angry from past hurts and wonder what took so long. Or you may be skeptical because years of arguing or disconnection have convinced you that your partner really doesn’t care. Or you may hear an implied criticism that you haven’t done enough to make your partner feel wanted and loved. Or you may not want to risk opening your heart, only to be disappointed again.
These five “skills” are difficult and complex. Most self-help books don’t begin to address them, and the few that do—for example, Dr. Sue Johnson’s Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love—can be difficult for couples to master on their own. But the rewards are well worth the time and effort, and a growing number of resources are available for couples needing outside help. Hold Me Tight couples workshops, and therapists trained in emotionally focused couples therapy, can help couples learn the relationship skills they need.
© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ruth Jampol, PhD, therapist in Newtown, Pennsylvania
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