Rather than finger point, explain how you feel

Issue January 2003

This column will present "part 2" of our response to last month's question. Here are some excerpts from that question:
Q:[My wife is] always sulking and keeping to herself lately, and acts like a martyr when I come home a little late or don't give her just the right gift for a special occasion. It seems that nothing I do makes the grade with her, and when she's wrong she won't admit it. She says I don't pay attention to her needs, but she never asks me how my day has been.

A:We began last month to describe some key processes that often derail intimate relationships and become foci of couple therapy. Many of these seem to be present in the above example. Today's follow-up concerns communication.

"Communication" as a term has become a clichÈ and a platform for humor about silly therapists. Nevertheless, miscommunication is present to some extent in all relationships, and abounds in poorly functioning marriages. When first getting to know your future spouse, you likely listened carefully to what s/he had to say, and also to the words coming out of your own mouth. Years into marriage, however, both partners tend to assume that they already know what the other is saying (not always accurately), and to react to that. We may misinterpret not only the words but also the tone of voice and body language. On the other hand, sometimes the distortion is not in the recipient of communication but the sender, who may have little idea how s/he is coming across. As miscommunications pile up, resentments and distance tend to mount.

How does a couple try to rectify such an impasse? This is where some of those approaches you've seen ridiculed on TV may be helpful. Essentially, you can try behaving as if your spouse has a different native language, and yet you want very much to understand and be understood. One person speaks, while the other listens and then reflects back what they think they heard. The speaker corrects any distortions resulting from unclear wording or distortions in listening. Each person has a turn to speak, and to show an understanding for what the other has said. (This does not mean that they necessarily agree, only that each can see how things look through the eyes of the other and has received a clear message.)

Two other suggestions: First, you may have heard of the notion of "I-statements." That is, it is much more effective to say, "I felt angry when you arrived late for our appointment," than to say, "You're too selfish to care that I'm sitting there wasting my time." How you felt is less debatable and more amenable to seeking solutions than a judgment or labeling of your partner.

Second, we're all too busy these days, so it helps to schedule time to talk. Lawyers, in particular, often tend to prioritize work over family, friends and self-care. Some couples plan a weekly "meeting," reserving as little as an hour a week during which the spouses give one another their complete attention, with no distractions or interruptions.

Though these concepts are not awfully complex, it is often very tough to make inroads in longstanding impaired communication patterns, and that's one reason to consider an experienced therapist. (We can help you find one.)

We will consider other impediments to marital functioning in future columns.