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On the last track, we discussed a research study into factors that influence the development of an optimized therapeutic alliance during conjoint therapy for couples dealing with marital conflict.
On this track, we will discuss four specific patterns by which couples commonly undermine communication. These four patterns are escalation, invalidation, negative interpretations, and withdrawal and avoidance.
As you know, there are several patterns that even the most seemingly perfect couples may exhibit that can be signs of potential danger ahead for the couple’s well-being. These may increase the chance that one spouse will seek emotional fulfillment through emotional or physical infidelity. These danger signs may be a good place to begin when choosing to teach communication strategies that work to introduce to the couple.
Alice, who had been married to her husband Dan for 5 years, began seeing me after she and Dan began having verbal fights. Alice stated, "The fights always start over such small things, like Dan forgetting to put the cap back on the toothpaste. He’d snap back at me with ‘oh, like you never do the same thing.’ So I’d get mad, tell him of course I don’t… which is true… next thing I know, he’s telling me how compulsive I am and we’re yelling at each other."
As you can see, Alice and Dan had begun to make hurtful negative comments, often using intimate knowledge of each other as weapons. Alice stated, "I feel bad… I can say the meanest things to Dan during our fights. It’s not what I really feel though! But at the same time, some of the things he says to me… it seems like that’s what he really thinks of me." As you have probably observed, even subtle escalation can lock couples in to a pattern of negativity, and the comments made in the heat of the moment can cause significant damage over time.
Technique: "Step it Back"
For example, Alice stated "You left the butter out again!" in an irritated tone. I responded, "Why are these little things so important to you?" I encouraged Alice to respond to this escalation by softening her tone and stating, "Things like that are important to me. Is that so bad?" Clearly, this gives Dan a chance to soften his tone as well, and opens room for a discussion.
Alice felt hurt because she felt that Dan was telling her that her feelings were inappropriate, thus putting a barrier between them. Do you find that in subtle cases of invalidation like this, partners like Dan feel like they are being constructive, or trying to cheer their spouse up by telling them it isn’t so bad? Of course, despite the good intentions, I find that this invalidation leads to the hurt partner beginning to cover up their thoughts and feelings, widening the gap in the relationship.
3. Negative Interpretations
For example, my clients Steven and Shelley had been married for ten years. Steven would frequently become angry when Shelley forgot to put the car in the garage when she returned home, and state, "You always forget to put the car away. I know you do this just to annoy me. You don’t care about anything important to me." No matter how many times Shelley remembered to put the car in the garage, Steven continued to interpret the times she forgot as a disregard for his feelings.
Have you treated a client like Steven whose negative interpretation of his or her spouse’s behavior is so ingrained that no amount of evidence will convince them otherwise? Have you found that these clients sometimes feel justified in taking ‘revenge’ on their partner for these imagined slights? Shelley found that she felt justified in having an affair with a friend at work because of Steven’s behavior. Shelley stated, "Well, it serves him right. After all Steven has put me through, why shouldn’t I do something to get back at him?"
4. Withdrawal and Avoidance
Even low levels of this pattern can be devastating, and in my practice I have observed that they are among the strongest predictors of future relationship troubles. One simple technique I suggest as a beginning step in arresting the avoider/pursuer cycle is the gentle start-up. As we have discussed, the more avoidance and withdrawal occurs, the harder the pursuer pushes. With the gentle start-up, I remind the pursuer that the way they start a discussion can impact their partner’s avoidance behavior. I encourage the pursuer to practice positive, caring entry statements to bring up the issues that need to be discussed.
On the next track, we will discuss filters, as they relate to teaching communication strategies. We will also discuss how filters impair communication in relationships. The five filters we will discuss are distractions, emotional states, beliefs and expectations, differences in style, and self-protection.
- Corliss, R., Steptoe, S., & Bower, A. (Fall 2001/ Jan 2004) The Marriage Savers. Time,163(3).
- Patricia, P., Boyle, R. A., & Tejada, L.. (Sep 2008) I Said, You Said: A Communication Exercise for Couples. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 30(3), 167-173.
- Tan, K., Jarnecke, A. M., & South, S. C. (Jun 2017) Impulsivity, Communication, and Marital Satisfaction in Newlywed Couples. Personal Relationships, 24(2), 423-439.
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