Over the last while I have noticed that my husband and I have been struggling in our discussions with each other. I am not sure that it is any better or worse than anyone else but the struggles sure are beginning to bother me more and more. We both seem to be more irritated and more easily frustrated by each other. Right now many of our conversations, even ones you would think were simple and straight forward, seem to turn into arguments. I do not know what it is but during these times you can cut the tension with a knife. The rest of the time we get along great and we are able to work things out really well together. I would like to find a way to break this cycle before it gets worse.
Thank you for your letter. As you note, many couples go through challenges in their relationships. It is a function of many different factors and influences. Without knowing more specifics about your situation it is difficult to know what sort of things trigger these situations for you. There are a few communication traps, however, that seem to be common in a lot of relationships when things are not going as well. I will discuss a few of them below with the hope that it may be helpful for you.
Three traps appear with some regularity in the couples who arrive in my office for counselling. These things tend to make the interactions between the couple more negative and seem to initiate frustration, arguments, irritation and tension. These things certainly are not meant to be an exhaustive list nor are they exclusive to those couples who end up in counselling, Yet they are common enough that they are worth discussing here.
The first is what I call “talking at” rather than “talking with.” When couples are frustrated and irritated with each other, they tend to stop listening to each other effectively. They can begin to assume that they know what the other person is going to say and what the other person is thinking because they have heard it all before. They can also start to interpret the other person’s comments as a direct criticism or attack. When this happens, individuals tend to respond defensively to other’s remarks and are often preparing rebuttals in their minds when the other person is speaking. “Talking with” requires one person to be listening effectively while the other speaks. When couples are “talking with,” both people are working together to understand each other and to give each other the opportunity to express themselves. When they are “talking at” they are both more concerned with making points than hearing what the other person thinks or feels in that moment.
Secondly, couples who are finding themselves arguing a lot are often engaged in debating solutions as opposed to discussing their concerns and what their needs and/or priorities are in that moment. When a discussion turns quickly to solution talk, we do not take the time to understand what each other’s view of the problem is and what is important to each other in any solution that we suggest. Moreover, once we start debating solutions we fall into the trap of defending our positions and trying to weaken our opponents position enough that our view prevails. When this happens neither person in the couple feels heard, listened to or understood. Both feel frustrated and irritated as a result. The discussion quickly descends into an argument and usually does not reach a resolution.
Finally, many individuals in a couple also report that there is an increase in negative, uncomplimentary internal dialogues that occurs in each of their heads when they are feeling stuck. I often refer to this as their ‘tape.’ The tape often starts to play when we are irritated, frustrated, stressed and tired (to name a few times). When the tape plays it sets us up to respond in negative ways to each other because we have already drawn negative conclusions about the other person’s motives, attitude, character. Each of us will recognize when our spouse’s tape is playing because they are moodier, more difficult to communicate with and shorter in their responses to us just as we are when our own tapes are playing.
The way out of each of these traps is to recognize when they are a factor and to try to escape their grips. We need to stop listening to the tape as best we can, talk about the problem first before we try to move to solutions and talk ‘with’ rather than ‘at’ each other.
To ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Consult a Counsellor is provided by registered clinical counsellors Nancy Bock, Diane Davies Leslie Wells, Andrew Lochhead, Sara-Lynn Kang and Carolyn Howard at Pacific Therapy & Consulting inc. It appears every second Thursday in the Record.