Communicate with Your Mate
By Kimberly Blaker
Couples split up for numerous reasons, ranging from lack of common interests to money to cheating. But therapists say communication issues are at the top of the break-up list.
There are five communication styles, write Ronald B. Adler and George Rodman in their book, Understanding Human Communication (Oxford, 2013). Many of these patterns are devastating to relationships.
Nonassertive communicators often don’t express their thoughts or feelings when conflict arises. They avoid issues or accommodate their partner instead. While nonassertiveness can be used to protect oneself from harm or embarrassment, this style is often the result of low self-esteem or the inability to communicate one’s needs.
Meanwhile, those who use direct aggression may attack others through criticism and name-calling while passive aggressive communicators will do things like comply with a request without intent to follow through. They may also use guilt, jokes, and withholding as weapons against their spouses.
Indirect communicators may offer subtle hints about what they want or need, without directly discussing the issue. Sometimes this effectively gets the point across while preventing hurt feelings or a negative response. But it also leads to misunderstandings and the opportunity for the receiver to avoid or ignore the message.
On the other hand, assertive communicators, according to Adler and Rodman, are the most effective because they are direct and clear about their feelings. They don’t try to control or hurt the other person. Assertive partners may not look forward to some discussions, but they’re able to handle them in a manner that ends positively.
If you see yourself or your partner in any of the first four styles, you’ve probably experienced many of the problems these styles often create: quarreling, escaping, and resentment. If these problems become too frequent, they can ultimately destroy your relationship.
A Better Approach
Changing old patterns isn’t easy and requires work, but learning to effectively communicate with your partner can happen. One communication technique, referred to as Intentional Dialogue or Couple’s Dialogue, is used in Imago Relationship Therapy and can help couples build deeper intimacy.
Imago Therapist Eleanor Payson, ACSW, shares this four-step process in her handout “Making the IMAGO Conscious.” Before getting started, she says, there are essential “ground rules” couples must follow.
First, explains Payson, the person who needs to have a talk must make a request for a specific discussion time. Couples often jump into important discussions without making sure it’s convenient for both partners.
If the time requested isn’t convenient, your partner should schedule a time better suited to both of you. The discussion should be held within 24 hours of the initial request.
Also, when making your request for a dialogue, don’t disclose the details. Tell your partner the topic only, to avoid undue worry.
When the scheduled time arrives, the person making the request is responsible for reminding the other. During your dialogue, stick to the topic, and if other issues arise, save them for later.
Finally, your dialog should consist of four steps: mirroring, summarizing, validating, and empathizing. After you complete these steps, switch roles so that each of you has the opportunity to share your thoughts and feelings.
To begin your dialogue, sit close and face each other. The person who requested the dialog speaks first.
During the four-step process, as explained by Payson, the receiver should not interrupt, except to check his understanding of his partner. Furthermore, he should not discuss his feelings, perspective, or anything else until the roles are switched.
Mirror After the sender describes her concern, the receiver will mirror—repeat back what the partner has said—and then ask if he understood correctly. If he has, he then asks if there’s more she needs to say.
Summarize Next, the receiver sums up in his own words what the speaker has said, asking if he got it all. If not, the mirroring process continues until he has received all of the important details.
Validate The receiver explains that he understands the speaker’s feelings and why she has them. If the receiving partner does not yet understand his spouse’s feelings, the mirroring process continues.
Empathize Once the receiver understands his partner’s thoughts and feelings, he states that he empathizes with and understands them. Bestselling author Jacob Morgan offers advice on how to empathize in “4 Steps to Practice Empathy from Dr. Brené Brown,” which also links to a video on the topic: tinyurl.com/5apbt53e. For a list of statements that express empathy, see tinyurl.com/2p8xam4r.
Finally, switch roles and begin the process again.
Kimberly Blaker is a freelance writer who specializes in parenting and family issues. For more on Imago Relationship Therapy, go to harvilleandhelen.com/initiatives/what-is-imago.