The Older Dad

The wise and older parent

The Antidote to Poisonous Communication

It's not failing to communicate, it's failing to communicate well.

"Where did I go wrong? I lost a friend, Somewhere along in the bitterness.

And I would have stayed up with you all nightHad I known how to save a life."    

-Issac Slade, The Fray

Experts often tell couples, “The problem is communication.” If it were only that simple. Usually, the problem isn't a failure to communicate, it is communication that poisons the well of love. The problem usually boils down to harmful communication…and usually lots of it.

Here are 4 damaging communication problems that can kill love, and how to reverse them:

1. Turning Away: When we tell our partner something, we often only share to the surface things. We don’t share our needs, our fears, or our joys—we try too hard not to rock the boat. We turn away at times at the very moment when we could really share ourselves.  To counter turning away, we can "turn toward" our partner by sharing our feelings and needs--the intimate details of our inner world. Communication works when it contains the secrets of who we are and what we long for.

2. Criticism and Defensiveness: Some couples only communicate what they don’t like about each other. They use “you.....” to level criticisms and personal attacks. In response to criticisms, partners become defensive. To protect themselves, people will deny the flaws we just pointed out—and often turn to counter-attacks to. Ouch! The antidote to the poisonous criticize-defend cycle is as simple as as moving the content to your needs, what you want done (rather than what you don't want the other person to do), and express feelings rather than criticisms.  If you communicate your feelings and needs, by making requests of your partner, you remove any need for defensivenss. You soften up your partner to actually hear what you're saying. 

3. Intent-Impact Discrepancies: When you say something, you have what you intend to say. But, you also have learned how to say things, and the filter of your mind can easily influence how clearly your words express what you mean. To make matters more complicated, our partners have their own filters, which influence how a message impacts on them. We end up thinking, “What is that reaction? I didn’t even say that!” When you see a clear disconnect between what you intended, and the impact it has on your partner, try repairing the broken communication. One-way is to say, “Hey, it sounds like what I meant didn’t come across very well. Can I ask you what you think I was trying to say, and can I try again if we aren’t connecting?”.

4. Symbolic Errors: Partners never can know everything about each other, and those gaps interfere with reading the inner meaning that colors communication. For example, if we want to change the holiday menu and find ourselves arguing about the change, we easily conclude that our partners are just stubborn. But…maybe the menu has a deeper meaning for our partner, relating to warm childhood memories of family meals with a grandparent. Overcoming a “symbol error” requires that we ask why something is so important—and avoid dismissing our partner as messed up.  Finding out the deeper meanings each other have allows partners to build intimacy through communication.

Couples "talk" all the time, but all too often use harmful ways to communicate and miss chances to engage in intimate conversations. When communication breakdowns happen, it isn't enough to just be aware of the problem. For couples to have love grow, repairing a breakdown in their communication is a must.  To make sure your partner understands what you’re saying, be sure you 1) say what you mean, 2) avoid criticism, 3) express your needs and feelings, and 4) repair the breakdowns. Apply the antidote of initimate converssations to cure tpoisonous communication patterns.

Resources: 

A Couples Guide to Communication (http://www.amazon.com/Couples-Guide-Communication-John-Gottman/dp/0878221271)

Intimate Conversations (http://www.gottmanblog.com/2011/10/intimate-conversation-three-skills.html   and http://danwile.com/2013/04/creating-intimate-conversations/)

Turning Toward (http://www.gottmanblog.com/2012/11/the-sound-relationship-house-turn.html)

Criticism (http://www.gottmanblog.com/2013/04/the-four-horsemen-criticism.html)

Kevin D. Arnold, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., is the Director of the Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy of Greater Columbus and a Clinical Faculty member in the Dept. of Psychiatry at OSU.

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