Good communication is the key to a successful marriage. Unfortunately many couples either don’t know how to use good communication skills or fail to put forth the work in using good communication skills. The end result of poor communication skills is often divorce. To help understand common mistakes married couples make when communicating and how a couple can improve communication in their marriage, I have interviewed clinical psychologist Peter Strisik, Ph.D.
Tell me a little bit about yourself?
“I am a clinical psychologist practicing independently in Anchorage, Alaska. I work with couples and individual adults with a wide range of concerns. I’m fortunate to have had experience working with the spectrum from acute and severe mental illness to adjustment and growth in a variety of settings. My training was in a humanistic/experiential psychology program at Georgia State University and at the Veterans Medical Center in Palo Alto California. The latter was my internship year (over twenty years ago!) where the influences were more psychodynamic though one rotation was in the family therapy program using a strategic family therapy approach and led by second generation therapists from the Mental Research Institute where Jay Haley and his associates did their ground breaking work. The largest current influences on my marital therapy work are John Gottman (The Gottman Method) and Harville Hendrix (Imago Relationship Therapy).”
What type of impact can poor communication have on a married couples marriage?
“The most obvious and immediate impact is lack of understanding and misunderstanding. This will often lead to conflict. When there is poor communication and conflict, issues tend not to get resolved, feelings get hurt, anger and resentment build. When that state of the relationship exists, arguments get triggered much more quickly with lack of resolution and so the cycle builds and continues.”
“If this cycle is not interrupted, the couple will either live in perpetual anger and conflict (with violence a possible eventuality), live in parallel and distant lives (with infidelity a possible eventuality), or they will separate.”
“This is why I regard healthy communication as the foundation of a healthy relationship. Healthy communication makes empathic understanding, caring, and forgiveness larger pieces of the relationship pie with anger, unresolved conflict, and emotional distance becoming much thinner slices.”
What are common communication mistakes that married couples make?
“In my experience, most struggling couples exhibit two major communication problems. The first is the tendency to blame each other rather than look at how each person contributes to the conflict. This is manifested in language with a lot of “you” rather than “we.” The cliché, “It takes two to tango” is particularly apt if we view the couple’s interaction as a dance. Every dancing couple will develop their own unique patterns of interaction; it is extremely rare that we can fault only one person for relationship difficulties. Note that this does not remove responsibility for individual actions such as violence or infidelity. When these are present, they must be targeted individually before the relationship dynamics from which they arose can be understood and addressed.”
“The second is the effort to prove oneself right rather than seek understanding and validation. It is critical in all communication, and particularly in heated communication, that each person feel heard, understood, and validated. Without this each turn of talk will tend to become louder and more aggressive in the effort to gain understanding and validation.”
“John Gottman, a marital researcher, writer, and therapist, has identified four critical factors in his research that contribute to relationship failure: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stone-walling. These behaviors can certainly be changed, but if they are not, they are predictive of divorce. His book, “The Seven Principles that Make Marriage Work” describes these four factors and presents very down to earth principles for building strength and resilience in marriage.”
What are some effective forms of communication skills that married couples can use?
“I am repeatedly awed at the dramatic shift when I see couples locked in conflict begin to use empathic understanding in their communication. One does not have to surrender their position, agree with their partner, or even stop discussion in order to use empathy and validation. It requires acknowledgement that there may be two individual experiences about the same reality. A simple genuine statement in the form of, “It sounds to me that you really feel _______ about this. I can understand how you could feel that way since ______.” This can melt the ice like butter (as long as it is genuine). That statement can be followed with, “Though that is not how I see it at all. For me………….” And the likelihood that the speaker will receive understanding and validation in return is that much greater leading to increased meeting of the minds and movement towards acceptance and resolution.”
“When conflict is heated and feeling out of control, a properly implemented “time out” can help to minimize the destructive potential of an unhealthy argument. When one or both partners feel overwhelmed or flooded by emotion, there is physiological arousal related to survival instincts that interferes with rational information processing and collaborative work. Proper implementation of a time out includes making the time out for both partners, not just the one who calls it. It should be in the service of calming the anger, fear, etc., and certainly never as to tool to control or escape. It is also important to express willingness and intent to return to the discussion and not let it hide under the rug.”
What advice do you have for a married couple that constantly has difficulties in communicating?
“Don’t wait! The biggest obstacle to saving relationships is waiting too long to address problems. Poor communication can be destructive to the marriage. Gottman’s four predictive factors of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stone-walling eat away at the fabric of a relationship. When addressed early, repair is realistic. As time slips by, however, the chances of reversing the damage will decrease.”
“Find a qualified marital therapist, a couple’s weekend workshop, and/or a good workbook on relationship improvement, but do something proactive, sooner rather than later. The alternative is continued escalation, increasing distance, and/or eventual divorce.”
Thank you Dr. Strisik for doing the interview on how a couple can improve communication in their marriage. For more information about Dr. Strisik or his work you can check out his website on http://www.strisik.com.
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