Healthy Habits for Great Communication

“You love every harmful word, O you deceitful tongue!” (Ps. 52:4)

Over the next few months, I am continuing a group on Healthy Habits for Strengthening Your Marriage Relationship. If you are in the area, feel free to join us, there is no charge. In the first eight weeks, I introduced the topics I will be covering, communication, sex, finances, parenting, etc. While I am writing on theses subjects, I thought I would share some of my thoughts with my broader audience here. In this second eight weeks we will be focusing on healthy communication.  

Some couples researchers and practitioners believe that communication is the only key to a healthy and strong marriage. I prefer to think of communication as part of the foundation of great marriages. I often use the literal foundation metaphor; where healthy communication is like the re-bar enforcement of a concrete slab. The re-bar in a concrete foundation not only provides structure but also strength. This is how I like to think about healthy communication, it provides the structure for how couples can manage conflict, connect to one another emotionally, and make good decisions together. Healthy communication also provides strength for the relationship. Once the concrete foundation has been cured, it is put under a tremendous amount of pressure by the building on top of it. Without strength, the foundation would crumble and so would the building. The destruction of the foundation and subsequent building would create collateral damage to people in and around the building. A good foundation is essential for a lifetime of positive interaction with your loved ones.

All relationships go through stressful periods of time. Sometimes this stress is good stress, for example, the wedding day, having a first child, buying a new home or new car. Other stress is thought to be negative like a major loss of income or the death of a loved one. Still there are other kinds of stressors that are unique to certain individuals and couples, for example, major or chronic illnesses, not being able to conceive, and mental or behavioral problems. It is important that couples be able to effectively communicate about everything in a relationship. Sometimes, couples think it is enough to be able to communicate about daily activities; at the beginning this is often a conversation about how one’s day has gone. As the relationship changes with the addition of children, changes in family structure, job changes, etc., these conversations become different, but they are only one part of important communication. It is equally as important for couples to talk about their dreams and their heartbreak; even when the heartbreak is caused by their partner. The ability to happily go through life with your partner is largely dependent on the ability to communicate with each other in a healthy way. John and Julie Gottman refer to those who are able to successfully go through life with one another as “masters of relationship” and those who can’t as “disasters of relationship”. They too agree that the way couples communicate and connect with one another is a key factor in being a master of relationship.

Most of this series on healthy communication will focus on healthy habits that help us manage conflict, connect emotionally, and make good decisions. John Gottman is a researcher with more than 45 years of experience researching and working with couples. His groundbreaking couple’s research has helped many couples better their relationship. His research has been largely conducted in the Love Lab, an apartment on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. One of the interesting things he and his wife Julie Gottman have learned through their research is that 67% of all problems in a relationship are defined as perpetual, meaning there is no solution for these problems. The Gottman’s suggest then that the masters of relationship are better able to manage these type of re-occurring problems, primarily through better communication. When John Gottman talks about problems in a relationship, he often quotes Dan Wile as saying, “when you choose marriage, you choose a set of problems, a whole set of difficulties”, sounds like an odd way to view a marriage unless you’re trying to think about how to better solve the issues you keep experiencing over and over. I think Wile and Gottman are also trying to communicate, the grass is not greener on the other side of the fence, it’s just different and has to be managed differently. More than half of all marriages end in divorce, more often than not the most cited reason is irreconcilable differences.

Learning how to correctly identify which problems need solutions and which problems need to be better managed is the first step towards being a better communicator in your relationship. The way in which you communicate makes a difference for those problems that are solvable and those that are perpetual. Steven Covey (2013) said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them” (p. 20). Our thinking must be different. If our thinking is different our behavior will be different. Our thoughts about our self, our spouse, and our relationship make a difference in the day to day outcomes we experience. The decisions we make based on those thoughts produce behavior; good, bad, or neutral. Communication is a function of thought and behavior. For example, if your thoughts are focused on the things you do not like about your spouse you will behave in ways that communicate this information. But your spouse has no idea what you are thinking (we weren’t created with the ability to mind read) but may ask “what is wrong?”.  Many people use this as an open door to communicate all the things that are bad in the relationship, the things that aren’t working. “Spouses are more likely to divorce when they constantly criticize each other. Happy, successful long-term couples make more positive statements than negative ones about each other by a ratio of five to one” (Schnarch, 2009 p. 359).

Healthy couples not only manage conflict well, they learn to emotionally connect with one another. It is vital to the health of our relationships that we use communication to emotionally connect with our spouse. Two individuals can understand each other better when they listen well and when they express their needs, thoughts and feelings honestly. Couples who are emotionally connected are willing to share both joys and sorrows, dedicate time to regular communication and strive to learn more about each other. Too many times couples allow the mismanagement of conflict and bids for connection to create an emotional wedge between them. This often looks like stale communication where one or both partners still talk to one another, but it is clear to observers that there is nothing emotionally connecting them. Here is an example of a stale conversation:

Wife: How was your day?

Husband: Fine, how was your’s?

Wife: Fine.

Some couples refuse to believe that their relationship could be this stale, so they intentionally talk about other daily activities but still there is no connection with their own feelings or those of their partner. Couples who find themselves in this unfortunate position must often spend some time repairing negative incidents before they can begin to take down the wall they have built between them and their partner. Poor communication and poor connection between couples leads to all kinds of problems; relationship problems, financial problems, sexual problems, intimacy issues, and many others.

Finally, being able to effectively manage conflict and emotionally connect with one another will help you make better decisions in your relationship. Over the course of this series, we will focus our discussion on Healthy Habits for Great Communication. We will discuss strategies that will help you better position yourself for listening and connecting with your spouse and discuss strategies for helping you start difficult conversations, especially those that have been known to lead to unhealthy conflict. We also want to introduce to you a concept developed by the Gottmans called The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and teach you how to defeat them. These are negative communication behaviors that we all engage in from time to time. The masters of relationship know how to recognize these behaviors in themselves and utilize more effective strategies for managing conflict. We will teach you about emotional flooding, a physiological response to conflict that often prevents us from using strategies we know will be better for us. We will discuss and teach you how to repair negative incidents. A negative incident is when we did not use effective or positive strategies for communication and we have hurt our partner. Too many times, individuals leave negative incidents undealt with, which leads to the breaking of emotional connection. We will also discuss some positive strategies for helping couples create moments to emotionally and intimately connect with one another. To end this series, we will discuss an important but often overlooked concept, vulnerability; as a healing place.

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