When it comes to couples communication, a common complaint is, “We fight over the stupidest things.” Why do small issues generate such big emotions? It is usually because that small issue is symbolic of a core emotional issue in each mate. Communication skills are essential to solving the issues that come up in every marriage or relationship. If you do not learn how to communicate and resolve issues, you will just move from relationship to relationship.
Why couples have issues
Why would people not expect to have issues with all the differences involved in relationships? Here are just four common areas that generate issues: needs, gender differences, personalities, and families of origin. These areas become the source of emotional reactions that make all communication skills go out the window. Men and women have different needs, but each expects their needs to be met in a relationship. Generally, women need to feel loved and safe in their emotional connection with their mate. A man needs to feel respected and affirmed. Unmet needs lead to hurt and resentment. They are the start of negative cycles in marriage. Men and women have different brains. They think, process, and look at things entirely differently. Because of this it is easy to start to think my mate is crazy and unreasonable instead of understanding these basic gender differences. When it comes to personalities, we tend to get attracted to someone who is opposite of us because we admire a strength they have in areas we are weak. After marriage, it flips and their weakness irritates our strength. Then we begin to try and change or fix them, which usually leads to resentment on their part. The last area, family of origin, is about the unresolved or unhealed issues in a person’s past that intrude into their present. This creates overreactions and the hot button issues people can’t talk about.
How do the above-mentioned issues generate so much emotion? It is because of defense mechanisms, things a person uses to protect themselves from emotional hurt. These are developed in childhood because this is when we start to experience hurts. The problem is that a child does not have adult mental resources and coping skills. But they do the best they can to survive this period of their lives. Some of these mechanisms are such things as denial, repression, suppression, minimization, and dissociation, just to name a few. They are often used on an unconscious level. The problem is they don’t work in adult relationships.
When discussing an issue, if the person begins to feel emotionally attacked they will pull out a defense mechanism. This often makes the mate feel emotionally attacked and they counter with their own defense mechanism. From here the couple just start emotionally reacting to each other’s mechanisms and they are off to the races. This tends to be an ongoing cycle of fights in which nothing ever gets solved.
The downward spiral
As the couple repeats this dance over the years they feel unheard, invalidated and eventually hopeless. Statements such as, “I can’t talk to you,” or, “You don’t care how I feel,” are often uttered. So the negative cycle is developed and functions perfectly. Hurt leads to anger and fights, which lead to resentment, then contempt, followed by emotional disconnection, then hopelessness and apathy, and, finally, the death of the relationship. All because they could not talk about and solve issues as they came up in the marriage.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Two simple communication skills that can help are presenting an issue in a non-attacking way and active listening. We already know an attack generates those pesky defense mechanisms, which you want to keep from being used. So talk in “I” statements about how you see, think, and feel about an issue rather than using the word “you.” “You” tends to make accusations, lay blame, and tell a person they are wrong. Your goal is to get them to understand how their actions or words are affecting you. When your mate brings up an issue, learn to listen for understanding rather than agreement. The problem with the latter is as soon as you don’t agree or like what they say, you stop listening and attack. Focus on understanding their perspective. When they finish, summarize back to them in your words what you heard them say. Once they affirm you heard them correctly, exchange places and repeat the process. When finished, you should both feel heard and have clarity as to what the issues is. You can’t solve an issue until you know what it is. Communication is a challenge in every relationship, but this is a good place to start.
Dr. John Hawkins, along with his son John Jr., runs Gateway Counseling Center in Boynton Beach, Fl. He can be reached at gatewaycounseling.com.