Wendy Warner is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in private practice at Trinity Family Counseling Center. In addition to working with couples, children, and individuals, Wendy also enjoys teaching the premarital classes for all couples planning to marry at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Macomb.
How would you like to find yourself in a relationship with someone who is loving, respectful, appreciative, trusting, cooperative, and helpful to you? It would have a bond that each partner could feel good about. Wouldn’t we all like to find ourselves in that kind of relationship?
John Gottman, who has studied couples for over 25 years, uses the exact opposite words from those above in his description of relationships headed for trouble. Gottman identifies criticism, contempt, defensiveness and withdrawal, or stonewalling, in a relationship as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. Meaning, any relationship that is regularly exchanging disapproval and blame (criticism), disdain and disrespect (contempt), self-justifying (defensiveness) and emotionally avoiding (stonewalling) behaviors is headed for pain and quite possibly the end of that relationship (Gottman & Levenson, 2002).
It seems a clear choice for all of us to strive for the relationship described in the first paragraph as opposed to the one described in the second. But how do we achieve that in everyday life? How do we navigate our relationships in a way that allows for conflict to occur without shredding our good feelings towards each other?
Research has shown that there are some key behaviors that distinguish satisfied couples from dissatisfied couples. If a relationship operates with 1) strong communication skills, and 2) the partners provide each other with social support, they can experience a higher level of daily satisfaction (Bertoni & Bodenmann, 2010).
A couple with strong communication skills will have the following characteristics:
the partners are open to communicating
the partners are willing to reveal one’s feelings to another
the partners attempt to see things from the other’s perspective
The second set of key behaviors involves social support from the partner. According to Bodenmann, Pihet, and Kayser, (2006) this means the partners demonstrate positive coping behaviors towards each other in dealing with daily life including:
assisting a spouse with daily tasks
communicating confidence in the partner’s capabilities
problem solving as a team
mutual commitment levels
sharing feelings with each other
one partner directly asking the other to provide support resulting in the couple adjusting the workload between them
These two lists define what sets happy couples apart from unhappy couples. Take a good look, and see what you might begin to include in your relationship to increase your daily happiness!
When couples communicate with each other negatively, problem solving gets distracted because destructive emotions and behaviors have been triggered. The damage from repeated rounds of emotionally destructive arguments has a way of surfacing again and again. This pattern eats away at the quality of the relationship (Overall, Fletcher, Simpson, & Sibley, 2009). Example: “I couldn’t help it the lawn didn’t get cut, I was busy watching Junior since you never do anything around here to help.” This blaming and critical remark could easily trigger the partner to give a defensiveness reply or withdraw. The result would be the distraction of both partners from problem solving due to negative emotions, and the relationship takes yet another hit.
In contrast, strong communication skills can play a transforming role in the midst of a conflict. Research supports the idea that the way conflicts are managed turns out to be more important than the topic of the conflict itself (Bodenmann et al., 2006). If one person attempts to use a positive communication skill such as empathy to deescalate the conflict, that is a great start. Example: “I appreciate you watching Junior while I ran some errands. It sounds like you feel I haven’t been doing my part to help around here. I feel like we are both working hard, and it’s frustrating to hear you say I never do anything to help.” While this is still a conflict to work through, it has a better chance of reaching resolution due to empathy and respect shown the partner. This requires the discipline of promoting positive communication and ignoring negative behavior, but it produces a highly desirable reward! The more effort we put into a respectful, constructive conflict, the more the other person is likely to open up with their real feelings and vulnerabilities because it produces a safer atmosphere. The respect given to each other serves as padding to safely buffer the walk through the conflict to reach resolution. And, as we said in the beginning of the article, the ability to navigate conflict successfully and feeling good about our relationships is a place we would all like to find ourselves.
If you feel that negative communication has played a damaging role in your ability to get along, you are not alone. If you are yearning to connect on a deeper level with your partner, we encourage you to consider seeking the guidance of a caring professional counselor. At Trinity Family Counseling Center we can assist you in building better communication patterns, addressing conflict in constructive ways, and restoring your relationship bonds.