Anger in the Age of Entitlement

Cleaning up emotional pollution

Marriage Help (Stop worrying about what to say.)

Communication is not about choice of words.
What I hear the most in counseling people about relationships is, "What should I say..." when he or she does this or says that.

My pat response is, "Don't worry about what to say; focus on the emotional state you are in and the emotional state of your partner when you say it."

The classic miscommunication in marriage occurs when she says something like, "Honey, we need to talk." I've written elsewhere about why this well meaning approach goes awry. The point here is, whether she forces him to talk or not, the likelihood is great that they both end up feeling disappointed and disconnected. The pain of disconnection from someone you love lies at the heart of every argument, cold silence, and resentment you endure in your intimate relationships.

Emotional disconnection is the biggest single factor in divorce. Most divorcees say they just "grew apart," largely because they "couldn't communicate." This is sad because the problem was not about communication. It was about disconnection. Marriage partners are not disconnected because they have poor communication; they have poor communication because they are disconnected. In the beginning of the relationship, when they felt connected, they communicated just fine. They would talk for hours on end. And they communicated well throughout their relationship, whenever they felt connected.

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Connection depends on attuning emotional states, which is extremely difficult to do with words. Emotional states attune through interest and caring - one has to be interested and show sympathy for the other, who must, in turn, be receptive to interest and care at that moment. Interest and care, like all emotional states, are conveyed far more by facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice than by words.

The chronic stress of disconnection in marriage, which is a cause of poor communication more than a result of it, stems from a slight difference in the way the sexes experience fear and shame. This subtle difference is inherent in the dilemma, "Do we talk about the relationship or not?" The real reason women usually want to talk about it--beneath the resentment and frustration--is disconnection makes them feel anxious and isolated. The real reason men typically don't want to talk about it is that her dissatisfaction with him makes him feel like a failure. His shame is too great to allow him to understand her anxiety, and her anxiety keeps her from seeing his shame. When they try to alleviate their feelings of vulnerability in opposite ways--by talking and not talking--all they end up sharing are disappointment and heartache.

This is tragic and unnecessary because they really want to feel connected and they know how to do it. In the beginning of their relationship, she regularly exposed vulnerable feelings (expressed her concerns and worries), and he responded with gut-level support. She fell in love because she felt safe being vulnerable, which made her feel emotionally connected to him. Her belief that he would be there for her quelled all her anxiety. He also fell in love because he felt emotionally connected. She made him feel more or less successful as a lover, protector, and provider, which reduced any threat of failure or inadequacy; she believed in him.

Their best chance of saving their marriage is to return to that state of mutually soothing and empowering connection. This requires understanding each other's core vulnerabilities and learning how to negotiate them with binocular vision--a dual perspective based on holding both points of view simultaneously.

Because communication is far more about emotional demeanor, body language, and tone of voice than choice of words, regulating your emotional state as you try to communicate is a crucial skill in modern relationships. (If you need help developing emotional regulation skill, ample information is available here. However, you probably do not need to undertake a whole regimen to develop emotional regulation skill, which requires learning new habits. Try this first. Instead of starting discussions with complaints, approach your partner with:


• A desire for connection (This is actually the goal of wanting to "talk about it.")
• Curiosity about his/her perspective
• Mindfulness that he/she is someone you love and value
• Appreciation of the assets your partner brings to your relationship
• The belief that your partner is a reasonable person, who, if you convey value and respect and give enough information, will at least acknowledge the importance of what you say, even if he/she disagrees with it.

If you can do the above, almost anything you say will be successful and will eventually lead to a compassionate and loving connection that goes beyond words.

Steven Stosny, Ph.D., treats people for anger and relationship problems. Recent books: How to Improve your Marriage without Talking about It, and Love Without Hurt.

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