Couples Communication: A Golden Rule of Effective Communication

“We fight when we try to communicate; we even fight when we try not to communicate…the only times we don’t seem to be arguing is when we’re at work. He works downtown, I work uptown.”  ~ Naomi, describing her relationship of six years

When left to our own communication fall-back position, many of us simply “speak our mind,” and as a result, tensions mount, feelings get hurt, and emotional and physical intimacy suffers. There are different reasons for these communication problems, and the antidote to chronic breakdowns in communication is to do something different—our default position simply isn’t working.  This is especially the case when we are under stress and/or negative communication patterns (such as heightened defensiveness) have crept into the marriage or relationship. 

What is something that you can do differently that might help get communication back on track?

Relationship Help: Using “Feeling-Cause-Statements”

This communication strategy comes from the book Relationship Enhancement by Bernard Guerney. It’s a simple skill that will take a little practice, but the payoff is well worth the practice.

The basic formula is as follows:

“I feel X in situation Y when you do Z.”

Here are some examples:

  • “I feel belittled when we’re with our friends and you make jokes at my expense”;
  • “I feel ignored when I mention the stress I’m having at work and you never ask me about it”;
  • “I feel hurt when it’s the weekend and you make plans with your friends and don’t ask me what I want to do”;
  • “I feel angry and upset when we argue and you call me names rather than deal with the issue at hand.”

There are several important parts of this communication formula that are helpful. The first is that you start the communication by focusing on yourself (your emotions) rather than your partner. Second, you are focusing on the specific situation or context where the distressing event occurred. This is important and prevents you from overgeneralizing with phrases like, “You always do…” or “You never say…” Don’t ignore this part of the equation!

Third and lastly, the “when you do Z” part of the equation has you focus on the specific behavior(s) of your partner’s that you find troubling—you’re not using vague terms like, “You have an attitude” or “Your energy sucks.” Instead, you name the concrete behavior that you observed and describe it objectively.

Don’t Forget To Focus on the Positives

Don’t just use this communication formula for what is bothering you—couples often make this mistake when they learn a new communication strategy. Now you have a powerful communication skill that can be used to let each other know the specific behaviors that you love and appreciate.

  • “I feel taken care of when you’re at work and take the time to send me a loving text”;
  • “I feel appreciated when each evening after dinner you thank me for helping out with the dishes”;
  • “I feel closer to you when you carve out time to talk about your feelings and the relationship.”

You get the idea!

Remember, learning a new skill of any kind takes time and practice. Be patient with yourself and your partner. It may feel unnatural at first, but with practice and time, this effective communication skill can become a regular part of your marital/relationship landscape.

Communication Resources

For more information about effective couples communication strategies, check out my communication workbook (Communication Breakthrough: A Communication Guide for Couples.)

Wishing you a  fulfilling relationship!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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