Dr. John Gottman, professor emeritus of psychology at Washington University, has developed a model which claims 90% accuracy in predicting whether newlywed couples will remain married. He believes that an early warning signal that a marriage is in danger is the expression of harsh criticism.
Complaints that are expressed in a destructive fashion, such as an attack on someone’s character, lead to a destructive cycle of defensive responses and lashing out. This leaves both people feeling ashamed, disliked and defective – which is devastating to the health of a relationship.
There are other styles of communication that can also be harmful. One is the avoidance of communication, in which a person tries to avoid discussing difficult issues. Another is passive aggressive behaviour, in which the expression of dissatisfaction or anger is not openly stated but expressed in an indirect and covert manner. Examples of this are keeping someone waiting, forgetting to do what someone has asked, or making subtle digs or sarcastic comments.
Communicating one’s feelings in an open, non confrontational way is an important skill. It is also correct to express feelings of resentment rather than bottling them up, and to do it with sensitivity.
Below are some approaches that can be useful in enhancing communication.
1) Start in a positive way
Dr. M. Wikler, marriage counsellor and author, explains that it is important to pick the right time to communicate difficult feelings, when one is calm and collected, not in a time of upset. It is also good to start in a positive way, for instance by acknowledging the other person’s point of view or apologising for that which you may have done incorrectly
2) Don’t blame or label
The psychologist Dr. Haim Ginott recommended that the best formulation for expressing criticism is XYZ – When you did X, it made me feel Y, and I’d rather you did Z instead. For example: ‘When you didn’t call that you would be late for supper, I felt unappreciated; I wish you would call to let me know when you’ll be late in the future.’ This approach avoids labelling, identifying the person with the mistake, and just focuses on the person’s behaviour. It also avoids the tendency to blame, by using the expression ‘I feel’, as opposed to ‘You are’. And it focuses on making a request as opposed to a demand, such as ‘Never do that again’.
3) Use non-defensive listening
Imago therapy, an approach for strengthening marital harmony, stresses the importance of non-defensive listening. The listener mirrors – repeats back – the statement they have heard. For example, ‘What you are saying is that you are upset when I don’t call to let you know I am going to be late, and this makes you feel unappreciated’. This allows the speaker to feel understood and validates their feelings. The other person then has an opportunity to reply using ‘I’ statements, which are in turn repeated back to him. This methodology helps both parties to understand each other and air out their difficulties without making each other defensive. Solutions can then be found.
4) Resolve the influence of the past
Sometimes arguments are rooted in ‘unfinished business’, unresolved relationships with other people from the past. Negative feelings toward these people are transferred onto a current relationship. For example, someone who feels they did not live up to parental expectations may react with anger at the slightest hint of not living up to what is expected of him by his spouse. The anger or hurt arises from a difficulty in the relationship with their parents, but it is expressed to the spouse. It is important to work on resolving the underlying problematic relationship, which in turn helps to stop the transference occurring. At times this can be done with the help of a therapist, where a client may express his unresolved or repressed feelings in the confidential and safe setting that therapy provides.