Jane and Carl are having the same old argument about the dishes. Jane says to Carl, “You are just so untrustworthy- you said last night you’d do the dishes this morning, but here it is 2 o’clock and they are still sitting in the sink!” Does Carl respond by saying ‘I’ll get right on it?’ or ‘I’m sorry, I just got so busy, I completely forgot’? No, he says “How can you call me untrustworthy?! I’m the one who gets the bills out on time! You’re the one who always forgets to take out the recycling!” This then continues into an escalation of all their old complaints being pulled out of the “gunny sack” that they each are carrying around.
What’s the problem with this couple’s interaction here?
When Jane starts out with a “You” statement that casts a disparaging shadow on Carl’s character (being “untrustworthy”), he feels compelled to defend himself. He feels his integrity is being attacked. He may feel hurt, he may feel ashamed, but his immediate reaction is anger. He defends himself and then quickly responds in kind with his “You” statement, criticizing Jane back. He adds the word “always” to his attack, which is bound to make Jane more defensive since she knows that there are certainly times when she doesn’t forget. They are off to the races with the basic approach of “I’d rather be right than happy” and the attack/defend pattern.
If Carl and Jane go to therapy and gain some communication tools, this is how the same conversation may go:
Jane says “Carl, when you say you’ll do the dishes in the morning and then they’re still in the sink at 2 o’clock, I feel really disappointed. It means to me that I can’t be sure that you really mean what you say.”
Carl then says “I get that you’re disappointed and, I’m sure, frustrated with me about this. I got so busy doing the bills last night that I just completely forgot. I can’t do the dishes right now because I have to get my car to the mechanics but I’ll do them as soon as I get back, ok? I promise”.
Jane feels heard and simply says, “OK, thanks, and I do understand and appreciate your doing the bills. I know it’s time consuming”.
Removing the attacking or criticizing method of communication
What’s happened here is the attacking or criticizing of the other’s character is gone, so the defensiveness and anger are gone. No one is using the word “always” or “never” (both of which will trigger defensiveness), and there’s an added element of appreciation. Jane is using a way of communicating her complaint in the form of “When you do X, I feel Y. What it means to me is____.”
This can be a helpful structure for stating your complaint.
The couples researcher, John Gottman, has written about the necessity of couples being able to state their complaints (which are inevitable) to each other. But when it is criticism instead, it can have a very negative effect on the relationship. He also writes of the great importance of expressing positivity and appreciations. In fact, he says for every negative interaction, a couple needs 5 positive ones to keep the relationship in a good state. (See his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, 1995, Simon and Schuster)
Laurie and Miles have had years of arguing, talking over each other, rushing to make their point, rarely feeling heard by the other. When they go to marriage counseling, they begin to learn the skill of “listener feedback”. What this means is that when Miles says something, Laurie tells him what she’s hearing and understanding of what he’s said. Then she asks him, “is that right?” He lets her know if he feels heard or corrects what she has misunderstood or missed. He does the same for her. At first it felt so awkward to them that they thought they couldn’t do it. But their therapist gave them homework to practice in a structured way, first for just 3 minutes each, then 5, then 10. With practice they were able to get comfortable with the process, find their own style with it and feel the benefits.
These are some basic tools of communication that you are encouraged to play with and see if they help you, too. It takes practice and patience, but many couples find it helpful in their relationship. Try it and see if it works for you!