Tag Archive for communication

Your Actions…Your Marriage

Your actions impact your marriage. No surprise there, right? It’s like hearing wisdom from Captain Obvious. But let’s look a little closer at two kinds of actions.

Some actions express power. Your spouse may perceive these actions as a threat to their shared control, power, or status. As a result, these actions will increase your spouse’s anxiety. Such actions include accusations, blame, contempt, or angry withdrawal. They can also include stating requests in a harsh, demanding manner or expressing your disappointments in an accusatory manner. In response to these perceived threats, your spouse will likely respond with emotionally protective behavior like defensiveness, counterattacks, or withdrawal. A vicious cycle is started.

Other actions are perceived as expressing vulnerability. These behaviors include, among others, expressing remorse, sharing empathy, expressing personal need, and accepting personal responsibility for misunderstandings or mistakes. Interestingly, when your spouse perceives a decrease in actions expressing vulnerability, they may feel emotionally neglected. Emotional neglect results in feeling threatened…and that may lead to increased anger, blame, or withdrawal as noted above. The cycle begins and goes on…and on…and on…unless we stop it.

How can we stop this cycle? Decrease behaviors that express power and increase behaviors that express vulnerability. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? But it is easier said than done. It initially feels safer to use powers that express power. But the long-term consequences of expressing power to maintain a sense of safety results in separation, pain, and the death of intimacy.

On the other hand, it’s frightening to become vulnerable. Vulnerability is scary. It makes us feel…well, vulnerable, exposed, at risk of hurt. But expressing vulnerability leads to deeper intimacy and greater satisfaction in marriages. How do we increase vulnerability and decrease power?

  • Share emotions with your spouse. Talk about your fears and your sorrows as well as your joys and dreams. Weep with your spouse and rejoice with your spouse. After all, the number one goal in most marital arguments is about emotional connection. Start connecting now.
  • Show empathy for your spouse’s concerns and fears.
  • When you have a concern, express it in kindness.
  • Accept responsibility for your actions and behaviors. When you say something hurtful, apologize. When you say something your spouse misunderstands, respond with a more careful explanation rather than anger and sarcasm.
  • Offer forgiveness when your spouse does something hurtful.  
  • Share your personal needs with your spouse and allow them to help meet those needs.

Yes, actions have consequences even in marriage. Decrease actions that express power in the relationship and increase actions that communicate vulnerability before your spouse. You might be pleasantly surprised with the increased intimacy and love.

Powerful Combinations of 3 Little Letters for Parents

When it comes to parenting, some of the most powerful interventions appear small and insignificant. For instance, the simple, small act of  saying “thank you” to our children on a consistent basis has a powerful impact on their self-image and their behavior. Another small but powerful intervention involves the arrangement of three little letters combined into a single word.

Consider the power of three little letters arranged to spell the word “AND.” “AND” helps a child learn they can be angry AND remain polite. They can understand that they don’t enjoy doing chores AND they can still do them, even getting them done well. Or, more importantly, they can come to appreciate that you, their parent, discipline them AND you love them more than words can say. You can even be upset with them AND remain present, available, and consistent.

“AND” is good for our parenting philosophy as well. It informs us that we have a great child AND they misbehave at times, even making mistakes that require correction. We can feel bad disciplining our child AND know we discipline them because we love them and want the best for them.  We can hurt for our child when they experience the consequences of poor choices AND let them experience those consequences and learn from them.

We find another powerful combination of three little letters in the word “YET.” “Yet” carries the power of hope and the potential for change. It communicates faith in our child’s ability to learn and grow. Think about it. I can’t ride a bike…YET. I can’t stand up in front of my classmates to give a speech…YET. I can’t cook…YET. I can’t drive a car…YET. “YET” transforms each of these temporary limitations into a hope, an anticipation of future success.

“YET” does the same for parents. I can’t get my children into a good bedtime routine…YET.  I can’t stay calm when my children scream…YET. I can’t stand another week of on-line school…YET.  Each “YET” reveals an expectation that I can learn and grow as a parent. Each “YET” communicates that I am not the parent I want to be…YET, but here is still hope. I can learn and grow. I can become a better parent…YET.

Three little letters combined into a single word with the power to transform, communicate acceptance, offer hope, and anticipate growth. Use them wisely.

In Our Families, Keep It Close Enough for Jazz

I enjoy jazz. I love listening to musicians as they share the stage and play together. In seemingly magical ways, they interact with one another through the music and share in the fun with everyone present. They seem connected, like they can read each other’s mind. They anticipate the next move, the next chord, the next phrase. They are in sync…perfectly attuned to one another.

These musicians teach our families an important lesson. They teach us how to “get in sync” with one another, attuned to the subtle nuances of each other’s communications. When we do “get in sync,” we will resolve discord more easily and find greater harmony more quickly. Plus, when mistakes or conflicts arise, we will back one another up and reestablish the harmony of the home more quickly. How can you get in sync with your family? Follow the example of jazz.

  • Develop mutual goals and priorities. Healthy families established priorities they can all support. Like the over-arching structure, theme, and direction of a piece of music, these priorities represent something bigger than any one person within the family. Long-term goals of vacations are a simple example of this. Other overarching themes are more complex, like becoming a family known for engaging in kindness or for being actively involved in their community. Having these overarching themes and structures will allow your family to get in sync by working together with “their ear to the overarching direction” of your family life.
  • Learn one another’s nonverbal cues. Yes, verbal communication is important. But nonverbal communication is essential for attunement. Paying close attention to nonverbal cues gives you a wealth of information that will help you resolve discordant issues among family members and more effectively work to create interesting harmonies. “Listening” to the nonverbal communications of facial expression, eye signals, and even body movements allows you to make small adjustments to your behavior that will decrease misunderstandings and increase effective interactions, strengthening the theme of a strong, healthy family in your home.
  • Balance one another’s strengths and weaknesses. We all have strengths and weaknesses. The most effective couples and families are more aware of one another’s strengths and weaknesses. They step up and support one another in their strengths. They humbly ask for help in areas of weakness. They learn when to step back and allow another to take the lead as well as the appropriate time to step up and utilize their strengths to enhance the beauty of the family interaction.
  • Practice a give and take. Listening to jazz groups you will notice different players taking the spotlight at different times When one player begins an improvisational solo, the other players play more quietly and support the solo. They follow he soloist’s lead. In families, there is a time and place for each family member to take the lead. The other family members can gather around them and support them in the “solo.” If anything goes awry, the rest of the family can quickly jump in to help them out, lift them up, and get them “back on track” while making it all sound so easy and good.

Four hints we can take from jazz as we strive to make our families “close enough for jazz.” Of course, we will never be perfect. But those imperfections allow us to grow, learn to better tune to one another, and maybe even make some new, interesting harmonies. After all, we don’t have to be perfect…just “good enough for jazz.”

“Stop Trying to Fix Me!”

“Stop trying to fix me!” Has your partner or child ever said that to you? Have you ever said it yourself? “Stop trying to fix me!” When people in our lives experience struggles or problems, they generally do not want us to fix it for them. They want connection…and connection involves empathy. Unfortunately, empathy does not always come naturally. The desire to “fix it” and “make them feel better” is often what comes naturally to us. We hate to see our loved ones hurt. We want to “make them feel better,” to “fix the problem.” So, rather than show empathy, we unknowingly say things that minimize and invalidate their feelings, things like…

  • “It could be worse….” During their painful situation, your loved one will find it hard to imagine anything worse. Besides, they do not want to think about something worse. They want someone to listen. They want someone to accept their feelings. They want you to hear their pain and validate their emotions.
  • “This could turn out well if you just….” No one really wants to take the moment of pain or sorrow to learn. There will be opportunities to learn after they navigate the current pain. Instead, your family member desires you to “be with them” in the moment, to “sit with them” in their struggle and support them through the pain.
  • “When one door closes, another door opens.” Many people have described the pain of this statement to me. It invalidates their current pain and implies that a person can only have one positive experience in their life at a time, one open door at a time. Instead, your family member simply needs to mourn the door that closed before moving to another door.
  • “It’s not that bad. I remember when….” This statement comes across as a “one-up” statement. It comes across as though you are minimizing the current pain by saying, “You want to know pain. I have felt pain. Your pain is nothing compared to mine.”

Statements like those above (and there are many others) are generally made with good intentions. They represent an effort to “make the other person feel better” and ease their pain. Unfortunately, they have the opposite effect. They make the other person feel unheard, devalued, and even more upset. Why? Because at the root of our emotions, we want connection and empathy, not “fixed.” We want to know we are understood and that our emotions are accepted. After we understand our emotions and know another person has accepted our emotions, we can work at resolving those emotions and finding a solution. 

So, instead of “trying to fix” your spouse, your children, or your parent, use these four skills to empathize.

  • Listen without judging. Hear more than just the words. Listen for the emotions underlying the words. Knowing that another person hears us deeply and has the strength to witness our struggle, gives us more strength to manage the struggle effectively. (Remember, the art of listening is more than responding.)
  • Identify and label emotions. Labeling an emotion puts a buffer between our emotion and our actions. It helps us avoid impulsive reactions and empowers us to respond appropriately instead. (Check out these 6 tips to make your children’s emotions your friend.)
  • Sit with them in the emotion. Walk a mile in their shoes. Allow yourself to experience their emotion to some degree. Maybe you have not had the exact experience yourself, but you have endured the human experience. You have experienced the joys, triumphs, pains, and struggles of humanity. Be vulnerable and sit with your family member in their emotion.
  • Summarize and validate their perspective and emotions. This will facilitate organizing their emotions as well as the opportunity to develop a potential response to the emotions.

When we “stop trying to fix” our family we are free to listen deeply and lovingly “be with them” in their struggle, to empathize and validate. By doing so, we open a door to future solutions. Perhaps more importantly, we open the door for deeper intimacy and love.

Intimacy…It’s Easier Than You Think

Intimacy—the state of having a close, familiar, and loving personal relationship with another person. We all desire intimacy in our marriages. More specifically, we all desire mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual intimacy in our marriages. But how can we develop that intimacy? It’s not as difficult as you might think. It only involves three ingredients and four steps.

First, intimacy is an interpersonal experience. It involves two or more people. For purposes of marriage, we will limit the intimacy to two people.

Second, intimacy begins with one person engaging in self-disclosure. At least one person must be courageous enough to disclose something about themselves. They might disclose information about their personal history, a life milestone, a past experience, or some emotion. The self-disclosure could be about a positive event or a traumatic event, a positive emotion or a heavy emotion. Either way, the self-disclosure represents a moment of vulnerability and a courageous invitation to connect.

Third, intimacy requires another person to pay attention to that self-disclosure. In paying attention, the person does not try to fix anything or change the person who engages in self-disclosure. They simply notice the self-disclosure, acknowledge it, and express interest in it. In other words, they accept the invitation to connect by showing interest in what the person has disclosed.

These three ingredients—two people in a relationship, one person willing to courageously self-disclose, and one person willing to pay loving attention to the disclosure—combine into four steps of growing intimacy.

  • Step one: one person reveals something personal about themselves. 
  • Step two: a second person responds attentively to that disclosure.
  • Step three: the interaction becomes reciprocal with both people paying attention and disclosing.
  • Step four: the intimacy that grows through this interaction promotes more self-disclosure and attentive responding.

That’s all there is to it. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But these simple steps often present a challenge to us. If you accept the challenge, however, the rewards have a ripple effect that will grow stronger and deeper as it expands. Each intimate interaction becomes a piece of a positive relationship history contributing to the expectation of more intimate interactions. The intimate interactions and the belief that future intimate interactions will occur increase our commitment to our relationship. Our sense of togetherness grows stronger and the safety of our relationship deeper. Self-disclosure becomes easier and paying attention more readily engaged in. And the ripples continue to grow….

When Jealousy Threatens Your Marriage

Joe arrived in therapy because he feared his wife would “cheat on him.” That fear was ruining his marriage. He admitted that he had no reason to think his wife would cheat on him. She had always been faithful, and she promised to remain faithful. Still, Joe feared the worst. After some exploration, Joe recalled a woman he had been engaged to prior to his wife. His engagement to this woman had ended when she had an “affair” with a man she met at work. Now Joe feared his wife would meet someone at her work as well. His unresolved past emotional injury had crept into his present relationship…and he knew it. Awareness is the first step in resolving this type of emotional injury and relegating it to its proper place—the past.

Another step involved Joe verbalizing his fear to his wife. Doing so accomplished the important objectives of communicating his fear and eliciting his wife’s support.

  • Communicating his fear and the underlying experience that contributed to that fear brought it into the light. Fears always grow stronger in the darkness of secrecy. Bringing the fear into the light weakens its power. It will also allow Joe to begin addressing his sense of self.
  • Communicating his fear also allowed his wife to know him better. It gave her the opportunity to understand him and his struggle better. That growing knowledge also provides the opportunity for greater intimacy with one another.
  • Now that his wife understands Joe’s struggle, she can offer support to help alleviate his fear. Rather than expressing anger and frustration at his unfounded fear, she can express empathy and affirm her faithfulness.
  • With the impact of this past experience on their present marriage “on the table,” Joe and his wife can problem-solve. They can develop a plan to increase the security ad intimacy of their marriage.

All in all, openly discussing Joe’s jealousy, the past that contributed to that jealousy, and how to manage it as a couple brought Joe and his wife closer together. They learned more about one another on a deeper level and so grew in more intimate. They could work together to build a marriage in which they both felt safe and secure. They could grow stronger as a couple.

You can, too, when you reveal the secret, elicit support, and work together like Joe and his wife.

Speaking the Truth in Love

Building a healthy family requires some tough conversations—tough conversations with our spouse, tough conversations with our children, and even tough conversations with our parents. These conversations often put us in a moral bind between the desire to be honest and the desire to be kind. Of course, we can approach these tough conversations in a variety of ways. Emma Levine, a University of Chicago psychologist, describes five ways to approach these tough conversations.

  1. We could just fail to address the issue. This approach is low on honesty and, in the long run, kindness. We avoid the discomfort of bringing up unpleasant material. But our family member does not learn valuable information. And, we miss the opportunity to nurture a more intimate relationship through the conversation.
  2. We might tell a “little white lie,” a false kindness to protect our family member’s feelings. Once again, we avoid the unpleasant confrontation, but our family member misses out on learning important information. Intimacy is hindered. And, if the “white lie” is discovered, our family member may even become resentful.
  3. We could simply speak with brutal honesty. In this scenario, we speak the truth but do not take our family member’s feelings into consideration.  Our family member will likely feel criticized or attacked  and, as a result, reject the message. Once again, family members do not gain important information. Intimacy is hindered. Relationships are harmed.
  4. The fourth approach involves telling your family member something true and positive but irrelevant to the “real” issue. For instance, your son asks about his performance during the baseball game and you reply by saying, “It was a beautiful sunny day to watch your game” rather than offering a direct, but loving critique of his performance. Unfortunately, your family member will likely view this as no different than telling an outright lie. They will become frustrated. Intimacy will be hindered. Relationships harmed.

Why do we use these ineffective approaches? Dr. Levine believes we choose one of these ineffective approaches because we focus mainly on our own feelings during the anticipated interaction and we focus on short-term comfort rather than long-term kindness. All this aside, Dr. Levine does describe one more approach… and this one proves most effective. It shifts the focus to the long-term growth and increased intimacy we might gain rather than the short-term comfort. .

  • Articulate a sincere interest in your family member’s long-term benefit before describing your concern in a gentle, straight-forward manner. Remember, the conversation will end like it begins so approach the interaction gently, with a “gentle start up.” Even if you fumble over some words, your family member will sense your attempt. They will experience the warmth of emotion expressed and recognize your genuine concern. As a result, they will be more able to hear the concern…even if it is unpleasant in the moment. In other words, speak the truth in love. When we do, family members gain important information. Everyone grows. Intimacy is enhanced.

To speak the truth in love is an ancient wisdom that helps us grow more mature, more intimate, and more secure.

A Card Game to Change the “Same Old Fights”

I love this quote: “What makes conflict so painful is that we are desperate to be heard but too upset to listen, desperate to be understood but too upset to be understanding, desperate to be validated but too upset to validate. What can help you get what you need is [a] willingness to stoke even a small ember of empathy for your partner’s experience.” (Dr. Alexandra Solomon)

An incredibly wise statement. Arguments are not resolved without listening, understanding, and validating. Unfortunately, the heat of a conflict sends us into a fight or flight mode, making it extremely difficult to listen, understand, and validate. So, what can you do? Here is a neat little “card game” that can help you become less “desperate” and more able to listen, understand, and validate. It demands some prep time, but the results can be wonderful.

Preparation:

  • Think of the tone of voice that escalates your conflicts. Then, write down the tone of voice that will help prevent an escalation. This may include calm (vs. agitated), gentle (vs. harsh), soft (vs. loud), sincere (vs. sarcastic), and any others you think of. Make one note card for each positive tone of voice.
  • Think of the words and phrases that escalate your arguments. Now, write down words and catchphrases to help calm an escalation. These might include repair statements John Gottman talks about. They can also include phrases that affirm your love for one another, phrases like “Even when I’m upset, I still love you” or “We can disagree and still love one another.”
  • After you have made these cards, put them around your house—on the fridge, on the mirror in the bathroom, on your dresser drawer…where ever you will see them throughout the day and where ever they will be readily available to you in the “heat of the moment.”

Playing the Game:

  • Now that the cards are spread throughout your house, make a point of reading them as you go about your day. Say them out loud when open the fridge, look in the mirror, or any time you see a card.
  • If (when is probably more accurate) you find yourself in an argument with your spouse, recite one of the cards. If you struggle to remember what any of them say, walk as you talk and read the cards along the way. Walking and looking for the right card as you talk may change your argument in and of itself…may even make you laugh a little.
  • Also, as you read the new statements and follow the new tone of voice directions, you will be changing your style of argument for good.

You may even find yourself better able to listen, understand, and validate. Better yet, doing all this will turn the argument into an opportunity to learn about one another and grow more intimate. Now that’s the way to win a great card game!

Conflict With Your Spouse? Try the Elmo Approach.

Remember Elmo from Sesame Street? Elmo talks in third person most of the time. The Sesame Street Workshop Frequently Asked Questions tells us Elmo talks in third person because of his preschool age. In fact, many preschoolers do speak in third person. Elmo simply says he “was born that way.” Whatever his reason for talking in third person, he may be on to something that could benefit you, your marriage, and your family.

Teresa Frisbie, a professional mediator and director of Loyola University Chicago School of Law’s Dispute Resolution Program, helps clarify what Elmo can teach us. She notes we often react to stressors, disagreements, or perceived threats with a fight, flight, or freeze response. John Gottman also states that marital arguments trigger this fight, flight, or freeze response. During this response, we become defensive and self-protective. We are less able to listen well or understand another person’s perspective. As you can imagine, that is not good for resolving the argument with your spouse. In fact, it only makes the conflict worse. But what can we do? Which leads us back to Teresa Frisbie.

Teresa Frisbie suggests we try what I call the Elmo Approach. She suggests we begin to use a third person perspective, just like Elmo does. Simply shifting our perspective from the first-person (I, me, mine) to third person (Elmo says…) helps us gain distance from the perceived stresses and perceived threat so we can remain calm and gain some clarity. The third person perspective helps us maintain a healthy optimism as well, which helps resolve disagreements. The Elmo Approach can also help us listen better and appreciate multiple perspectives. It will help us resolve the disagreement more easily.

You may be thinking, “Elmo can talk in third person, but I’ll look crazy talking in third-person during an argument.” Well…. Here’s the beauty of this? You don’t have to say it out loud. You can simply begin referring to yourself in third person in your mind. Beginning to use the third person in your thoughts can produce the same results. So, give the Elmo Approach a try. If you find yourself stressed or overwhelmed, start referring to yourself in third person (by using your name or referring to yourself as he, she, him, or her) as you contemplate your response. Whether you find yourself giggling like Elmo or not, you will find it easier to maintain some distance from the stressor and resolve the conflict more easily.

Read more about this in How to Get Some Emotional Distance in an Argument from The Greater Good Science Center.

“Yeah, but…,” “Yes, and…”, “Your Marriage”

I like to do an exercise with families and couples struggling to communicate effectively. The exercise involves three parts and is taken from an improvisation exercise. In the first part of the exercise, the couple attempts to have a conversation by replying to everything their partner says with some form of “No.” Variations on “no” can include, “That’s wrong,” “Never,” “How stupid,” “How can you do that to me?” or a simple roll of the eyes. As you can imagine, this conversation is very short in the office, but they can go on for days in the home. A “no” response blocks connection. It tends to either end the conversation or lead to an angry response that escalates into a cycle of blaming and defending.  As you can imagine, done consistently this type of response will kill a relationship.

The second part of the exercise changes the response from “no” to “Yeah, but….”  You can imagine the simple conversations that follow. “It’s sunny outside.” “Yeah, but it’s hot.” “Yeah, but we can swim.” “Yeah, but the water is probably cold.” “Yeah, but….” Is it getting irritating yet?  Yeah, but it can go on in some relationships forever. In life outside my office, “yeah, but” responses may not even include those words. They may sound more like “You did it (yeah)…(but) finally” or “That’s not a bad job (yeah with the implied ‘but it could be better’)” or “That is good work (yeah)…(but) for you.” The “yeah, but…” conversation blocks connection as well. It quickly becomes frustrating and may even escalate to arguing. It will also kill a relationship.

The final part of the exercise changes the initial response one more time. This time, all responses start with “Yes, and….” “It’s sunny today.” “Yes, and it’s hot.” Yes, and we can swim.” “Yes, and the water is probably cold.” “Yes, and that will feel good!” Not near as frustrating. The “Yes, and” conversation accepts the other person’s statement and adds to it. It builds connection through acceptance. It builds cooperation. It opens the door for a deeper and more intimate conversation.

As you finish reading this description, take a moment to reflect. Step away from the “Yeah, but that will never work in my marriage” and the “Yeah, but you don’t know my spouse.”  Pause and consider the “Yes, and I’ll give it a try” or “Yes, and I’ll find out if it works in my marriage.” You might be pleasantly surprised.

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