Couples Communication: Creating a More Satisfying Relationship – for Life

Part IX: Make the Relationship a Priority

I once saw a couple we’ll call the Joneses. They walked into my office and said, “We’re really good at Jones Incorporated. We do a great job of managing our finances, managing our household, raising our kid, and all the other practical aspects of our family. But we’ve lost each other.”

They had stopped connecting with each other in terms of emotional intimacy. They were high-functioning, efficient, productive roommates. They were not fighting, arguing, or especially angry – but they weren’t very caring or loving either.

This is one of the most common couples problems I see in my practice. There are not necessarily any deep-seated emotional issues they are avoiding – they have simply stopped making the relationship a priority. They are busy transporting their kids to sports events, working at their jobs, managing the household, maybe volunteering in the community – and taking each other for granted. I only half-jokingly tell my clients that the two things people take for granted and stop putting effort into are exercise and their relationship.

Absolutely nothing in your life will work or provide satisfaction if you don’t put time, effort and energy into it.  Let me say that again: Absolutely nothing in your life will work or provide satisfaction if you don’t put time, effort and energy into it.  Ask yourself very honestly – how much time, effort, and energy are you putting into your relationship? What did you do to feed your relationship this week? Last week? In the past month? What other parts of your life do you expect to provide rewards when you don’t put anything into them? Your health? Your career? Your finances? Your house?

You have a lot of demands on you, a lot to juggle and manage in your life. Work/life balance is a serious challenge for many of us. Babysitters are scarce, money is tight, and you’re tired. I joke that half of my couples clients would be “cured” if there were 48 hours in a day (the other half would be “cured” if they made a pill that made people patient).

So given the limitations of a 24-hour day, what can you do? Date nights on a regular basis are great if you can make it happen. The dates don’t have to be expensive or fancy – just the two of you enjoying time as a couple. During your date, don’t make side trips to the store, and don’t spend the whole time talking about the business of your lives – just spend the time relating to each other as a couple.

I advise almost every couple I see to find ways to spend more time with each other. Some of them come back and say, “No, we didn’t spend any time together – we just went to the grocery store, department store, and ran errands.” Others come back and say, “Yes, we spent time together – we went to the grocery store, department store, and ran errands together – and we made it fun. We talked and enjoyed our time together.”

I knew a couple who started their day together early, before the kids got up, talking over coffee on their porch. Another couple solved the time-together challenge by showering together in the morning. Whatever you decide to do together, put it on the calendar and make it happen – don’t let it be just a back-up plan in case you run out of chores and projects to do.

If you allow yourselves to become strangers and roommates, there will be no meaningful communication or connection – and very little satisfaction. Nurture your relationship, and the rewards can make everything else in your life easier.

Couples Communication: Creating a More Satisfying Relationship – for Life

Part VIII: Building Empathy, or, Practice Makes Permanent 

If you have been reading this series, you have learned about using the nuts and bolts of effective couples communication in a way that promotes emotional growth; you’ve tried to get outside of your own persepctive and get curious about your partner’s experience; and you have worked on creating a safe environment in which you can discuss feelings in a non-reactive way.

 Now it’s time to practice, practice, practice. In Harville Hendrix’s classic book, “Getting the Love You Want,” he talks about the Couples Dialogue exercise. It is basically a discussion of any topic that is an issue for the couple, using the tools of mirroring, validation, and empathy statements.

 An example: 

“I’m feeling frustrated and rejected that we’re not spending more time together.”

The partner mirrors back: “So you’re feeling frustrated and rejected that I’ve been spending so much time working in the evenings. Did I get that right? That makes sense – I can understand how you would feel that way. I would imagine you’re feeling like a low priority. Is there more?”

 “Yes. This feels like a pattern of you finding things to do that take you away from spending time with me.”

 “So it seems to you that I have a pattern of finding things to do other than spend time with you. Did I get that? I can see how you would feel that way. I’d imagine that makes you feel rejected.”

 At this point it’s the listener’s turn to speak. The listener does not need to defend or respond directly to what has been said, but just to say whatever is on their mind at this time. The other partner then makes statements to mirror, validate, and empathize.

 Practicing this exercise trains you and your partner that speaking about feelings or concerns is not threatening, dangerous, or unduly difficult. It is simply a normal part of maintaining and developing your relationship. So, we are using simple communication tools not only to address communication issues, but also to build trust and empathy,  and to deepen the relationship. 

Couples Communication: Creating a More Satisfying Relationship – for Life

Part VII: Managing Anger and Reactivity

Are you or your partner quick to anger? Are small comments or questions met with disproportionate defensiveness? Do small disagreements turn into major fights? In an environment of high emotional reactivity, couples are not going to make themselves vulnerable, take emotional risks – or get closer. Instead, such an environment promotes the building up of walls, defensiveness, and resentment – the opposite of what you need to develop intimacy.

 I have worked with some couples who readily absorbed the concepts and techniques of effective couples communication that I offered them. But they would go home, activate each others’ emotional reactivity, and have enormous blow-out fights. Needless to say, at those moments they did not use the communication skills they had learned.

 After a few sessions of this, I finally realized we needed to work on not escalating. What I did with them was some basic anger management. We did not drill deeply into the roots of their angry feelings, we did not devote very much time to exploring their individual past histories with angry communication, and we did not spend too much time having them talk back and forth about their anger.

 Instead, we just had them learn to control it, the way they do in every other aspect of their lives.   After that, they were able to do a much better job of managing their reactivity, so they could start to communicate in a mature and constructive way. At that point, they could begin to really benefit from the couples work we were doing.

 So, some tips on how not to escalate:

 Recognize that you may not be able to get immediate resolution to whatever is bothering you at that moment. Your choices are to sit with the discomfort, or lash out and have a pointless fight that resolves nothing, but pushes you farther away from each other. Recognize that those are your only two choices and choose accordingly.

 Then, acknowledge to yourself that you are angry, and that you do not want the negative consequences of expressing it inappropriately. Count to ten. Take a break from the situation. Walk around the block. There is a strong physical component to emotional states. Getting the feelings out physically can be very helpful. I advised a client to walk around the block when he gets angry at his wife. He came back the next week and said, “I did what you said, when I got angry at my wife, I walked around the block –  and it didn’t work. So I walked around the block a second time, and THAT worked.”

 Make an agreement with each other that it is OK to ask for and to give a time-out – a cooling-off period when discussions get heated. Part of the deal is that you won’t just let the issue drop, but that you will come back to resume the discussion later when you are both in a more constructive frame of mind.

 Delay a complaint. When something is bothering you, practice not saying anything about it for 20 minutes, an hour, or 24 hours. See if the importance and intensity of the complaint changes with time. If you decide the issue is still worth talking about, you will be able to bring it up with your partner in a less emotional state, feeling calmer and better able to use your effective communication tools. You are also learning the valuable skill of sitting with an uncomfortable feeling without having to immediately act on it.

 You simply cannot make progress in your relationship unless you get a handle on emotional reactivity. Practice these techniques faithfully, and you will be on the road to the closeness and intimacy you desire.

Couples Communication: Creating a More Satisfying Relationship – for Life

Part VI: Creating a Safe Environment

Developing empathy is a huge step toward creating a safe environment where you and your partner can discuss feelings. If I know that when I speak, the first thing I will hear back is your effort to understand me, then I feel reinforced for sharing my feelings. If the first thing I hear back is dismissal and arguments, I probably won’t take the risk of trying to communicate with you.

It’s hugely helpful if the couple makes it a norm in their relationship that they can speak about feelings or other sensitive issues in a calm and open manner. For most couples, this requires practice. I encourage them to do a “Daily Temperature Reading” with each other, as close to every day as they can. This is based on an exercise created by Virginia Satir that involves mirroring and empathy statements, and “checking in” with each other in a variety of areas.

It works like this:

Partner One states an appreciation, for something large or small, that Partner Two has done, or for some quality about them – “I appreciate that you’re a terrific parent,” for instance. Partner Two says, “I hear that you appreciate that I’m a terrific parent. Did I get that? I’d imagine that makes you feel supported and secure regarding our child.” Then, Partner Two states an appreciation to Partner One, who then responds with mirroring and empathy statements.

Then they make a statement about “How I am feeling right now,” and they mirror each other and make an empathy statement.  Next is “how I am feeling about us right now,” and again they mirror each other and make an empathy statement.

Some couples might use this as an opportunity to list their complaints about the other, which is not the same as saying “I am feeling X.” But many couples will try to avoid conflict by saying “I’m feeling fine about us.” I encourage them to be honest and reasonably constructive about this. I want them to be OK with saying, and hearing, “I’m feeling generally hopeful about us but also frustrated that we still can’t agree about our step-parenting problem.”

The idea is not to get bogged down in a long discussion about “why do you feel that way, whose fault is it, how can I defend myself, or how can we fix it.” But rather it’s to practice hearing your partner’s feelings without having to react to it in those ways, while containing your own feelings about what you are hearing. I tell my couple clients that I want them to build the skills, or “muscle groups,” for discussing difficult topics in a calm and productive way, and to come to resolution on them. But at the same time, this exercise works a different muscle group that is also essential – the ability to sit with and tolerate some tension, without having to act out about it or resolve it immediately.

Many couples need practice just sitting with emotional content, rather than having to fix it, fight about it, or make it go away. Over the course of a decades-long marriage, you are guaranteed to annoy each other or feel hurt sometimes, and those occasions don’t have to become huge fights or major problems. It’s an important skill to accept that sometimes there is some tension in the air, and it doesn’t always have to be resolved right this minute.

So this exercise helps you to have daily practice with speaking and hearing emotional content while managing your reactivity. You are creating a new normal of calmly addressing feelings and other challenging issues. As you become more comfortable discussing feelings this way, you will feel less need to bottle up your feelings until they explode, or to avoid and internalize issues between the two of you, or to express feelings in an attacking or blaming way.

The Daily Temperature Reading can be expanded to include check-ins on logistics, or calendar items – “I’m letting you know that the car will be in the shop on Friday and we have a kids birthday party on Sunday”; “puzzles,” or questions you have been wondering about for each other; a Behavior Change Request, for one specific change you would like you partner to do for one week; and Wishes, Hopes, and Dreams, in which you share a dream you have for the future.

So again, you are learning to communicate more effectively, but you are also learning to be present with one another in a calm and supportive way. You are using communication tools to heal the relationship and to grow in deep and meaningful ways.

Couples Communication: Ceating a More Satisfying Relationship – for Life

Part V: Effective Listening

“I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” ― Alan Greenspan

 Effective listening deserves as much attention as effective speaking. If what we’re doing when the other person is speaking is simply formulating our rebuttal, looking for the parts we disagree with, or looking for things to justify our own feelings, then our response is not likely to be productive. Instead, listen to understand: to understand where your partner is, how they feel, and most importantly, how things look through their eyes.

The listener’s body language speaks volumes. As the speaker, we don’t express ourselves as freely when we’re looking at an angry face, a disbelieving face, a sarcastic face, or a bored, distracted face. Honor your partner by giving them your complete and open attention.

I like to start with the deceptively simple exercise of reflective listening, or mirroring what each other is saying. Whether we believe it or not, we are all poor listeners – we miss and distort an awful lot of what we hear. In the mirroring exercise, the speaker makes a statement, and the listener mirrors it back: “So you’re saying such and such – did I get that right?” The speaker should feel free to correct any mistakes in the listener’s mirroring.

This simple exercise actually builds up several “muscle groups,” so to speak. You are checking out communication – did I understand your message the way you intended it? That can stop quite a few arguments before they begin. And you are letting your partner know they were heard, which is often a welcome change of pace, compared to the feeling of talking to a wall or getting a response that feels dismissive. If someone is saying the same thing over and over, it’s because they have not felt heard the first time. When we can get ourselves to listen with respect and understanding, conflict management often takes care of itself.

One of the most important stretches I ask couples to make is to get curious about each others’ experience. I’ll joke that you may be doing 10 things that would annoy other people, but only one of them is an issue for your partner. Get curious about why that is, about what the behavior that you’re doing means to them. Does it echo experiences they had in their families growing up, or with past relationships? Understand what happens for your partner in those interactions – so that it is not a judgment on you, it’s information about how your partner is wired. That’s good information for you to have. And if you can develop true empathy for your partner’s experience, you will have a much firmer foundation for changing behavior than you would achieve through nagging or some negotiated settlement.

After mirroring what you have heard, make the stretch into empathy, with a statement such as, “And I would imagine that makes you feel…”  So for example, the listener mirrors back, “You’re saying that you feel left out when I make plans with others without checking with you first. Did I get that? I would imagine that makes you feel unimportant.” Again, the speaker can feel free to correct the empathy statement. The listener is trying to understand not how this would make themselves feel, but what does it mean to their partner, who sees and experiences the world differently than they do. The goal of the exercise is not to become a tape recorder or a mind reader, but to develop a habit of checking out communication, clarifying it with each other, and developing a deeper understanding of your partner’s experience.

The more you can empathize with your partner’s experience, the more you can let go of your own defensive posture, and start to open up to a real connection.

 I want to be clear about what empathy is and is not. The aim of empathy is to develop a gut-level understanding of how your partner feels, what the world looks like through their eyes and with their history of experiences, and what a given situation means to them. Your partner is built differently than you, and they interpret and respond to things differently than you do.

Empathizing with your partner does not mean you agree with them, or that they are right and you are wrong. And importantly, it doesn’t mean that you give up the right to assert yourself. Empathy is a two-way street, not a zero-sum game. You are as entitled to your feelings and perspective as your partner is to theirs.

And by the way, there are couples who balk at what they perceive as the artificiality of communication exercises like mirroring. To them I say: you’re right, this is not a natural way of speaking. It is an exercise, just like going to the gym and lifting pieces of metal is an artificial thing to do. But we do it to build muscles and reflexes and to grow – and that’s what we’re doing here. We’re using these exercises to build new ways of responding to our partner so we can build the best relationship we can have.