Joanne wanted to talk about a major fight she had with Gill. It was a big argument that escalated into mutual hostility, hurt feelings and a threat of separation. By the time they entered my office, they looked beleaguered and ready for a truce.
“We don’t fight fair,” Gill said sheepishly. “We end up saying things we regret, things that are downright hurtful. I think we need tools to better deal with conflict.”
Joanne agreed. This last fight got pretty ugly. Most of their arguments quickly devolved into finger pointing and hostile name-calling. They were averaging about one “major” fight every two weeks intermixed with long stretches of “basically keeping out of each other’s way.”
These arguments were taking an emotional toll on both of them.
They told me that without learning more effective communication skills, they couldn’t see how they were going to survive as a couple. They were certain about what they needed. And their request to learn how to better communicate made sense, since when they tried on their own they inevitably abandoned all communication decorum and lashed out at each other.
So why did I hesitate?
By the time they entered my office, Joanne and Gill probably knew more about how to communicate than most couples’ counselors. They went through four marriage therapists in as many years before contacting me for an appointment. In addition to their experiences in couples counseling, Joanne was an avid reader who consumed several relationship advice books a month.
They knew the lingo, they knew about “I” statements and mirroring and emotional triggers. They spoke about their communication barriers and the steps they each needed to take to overcome them. In addition to their extensive knowledge base, early on in our work we revisited the issue of communication and rehearsed some of these communication skills together.
But none of this mattered. These skills never stuck when they needed them the most. Gill and Joanne were discouraged, and I imagined their former counselors felt similarly.
Could it be that their distress call of “We need communication strategies” was misdirected?
Could the answer to their relationship distress lay somewhere else?
Communication in Relationships: Focus On the (Small) Interactions of Daily Life
One possible answer to Joanne and Gill’s troubling escalations may have little to do with how full their communication toolbox was or the content of their conflicts. Is it possible that an explanation for their underlying troubles could be found in the interactions occurring days, weeks or even months prior to a major blow-up?
This is what the research suggests.
Driver and Gottman (2004) conducted a study that suggests it is the fleeting, seemingly unremarkable interactions that play a significant role in a couple’s life. In this view, the handling of conflict is influenced by the small, daily ways in which couples reach for each other (called bids) — or the ways they fail to reach for one another. Couples who connect through playful engagement and enthusiastic responding to each other’s bids for attention fare well when conflict does arise. (And remember that conflict occurs in every relationship; in and of itself, the existence of conflict doesn’t determine the health of a relationship…the way in which the couple handles it can, however.)
Specifically, the study showed that the husband’s playful attempts to engage his wife positively influenced the wife’s own playfulness and enthusiastic responses. This playfulness also had a positive impact on the wife’s attention and on the manner in which conflict was addressed.
Taken together, Driver and Gottman conclude that:
“The current data provide preliminary support for the theory that couples build intimacy through hundreds of very ordinary, mundane moments in which they attempt to make emotional connections. Bids and turning toward may be the fundamental units for understanding how couples build their friendship.”
In other words, it may not be the sweeping, emotionally in-depth discussions that ultimately drive a couple’s relationship. The feeding of your relationship occurs each day, in small ways. Showing enthusiasm, curiosity and mutual interest; taking the other’s complaints, struggles, and achievements seriously; and just as importantly, creating a space to play and to be playful with one another, all seem to create a forward movement that strengthens a couple’s bond.
“In these sessions, we often discuss the big things that don’t work in your marriage. Tell me about how you typically interact with each other on a daily basis.”
My question started an exploration of the day-to-day ways in which Gill and Joanne relate to each other. And one of the things that stood out about their daily interactions was the lack of playfulness and fondness communicated.
Their interactions had a business-like feel to them: exchanges of information; dealings with the logistics of life; and a lot of time absorbed in separate activities that offered little opportunity to engage with each other, even in small ways.
Is it possible that by the time an argument flared up, Gill and Joanne were already feeling painfully isolated from each other?
Social psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson offers a similar insight into the workings of love. In her book, Love 2.0 (2013), she emphasizes the micro-connects that occur in an instant and that feed love. At a physiological level, couples engaged in micro-connections seem to enter into a biologically synchronized orbit with heart-rhythms and biochemistry coming into mutual alignment. She calls these shared experiences, “micro-moments of positivity resonance.”
In short, small, positive moments matter. They make us feel emotionally seen. They feed us emotionally. And they have a cumulative impact.
This research might sound fascinating to you, but if you and your partner are caught in the spokes of relational despair, the idea of positivity or turning toward one another with enthusiasm or curiosity can feel like a Herculean task.
But you can start slow and small. Set an intention, being mindful that turning toward one another and mutual responsiveness to each other’s bids is a choice that occurs throughout the day. You must choose to respond, to push yourself to act differently in small ways for the sake of your relationship.
Expressing appreciation and gratefulness for the seemingly small things that occur in your marriage or relationship is one important path to feeding the connection between you and your partner.
This is the path Gill and Joanne are now heading down, rather than solely focusing on the grand communication events that can so easily capture our attention.
Wishing you a deep and fulfilling connection,
Dr. Rich Nicastro
Driver, J., & Gottman, J. Daily Marital Interactions And Positive Affect During Marital Conflict Among Newlywed Couples. Family Process, 2004, 43 (3): 301-314.
Fredrickson, B.L. (2013). Love 2.0: Creating Happiness And Health In Moments of Connection. Plume.
(Featured image courtesy of Jesadaphorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)