Category Archives: Couples Communication

4 Signs that Your Marriage is Headed for Divorce

Couples therapist John Gottman has identified 4 behaviors that are so destructive to relationships that they will almost certainly lead a married couple to divorce.

Due to their ominous nature, he calls them the “4 horsemen of the apocalypse” and because of their destructive nature, they must be stopped at all cost.

Although we almost inevitable end up engaging in these behaviors, it is important to be vigilant about their presence and make conscious efforts to reduce or minimize their impact on your marriage.

Want to know what the four horsemen are? Let’s go through them one at a time:

Criticism:

Couples who divorce often have an unfavorable ratio between complaints and appreciations. John Gottman has argued that about 2/3 issues that married couples fight about have to do with personality differences that are ultimately unresolvable. In strong marriages, couples find ways to develop a greater appreciation and understanding of these differences. They realize that we don’t marry a partner simply to be with a carbon copy of ourselves. In married couples who end up divorcing, however, differences instead turn into annoyances, and annoyances into fights. Instead of asking for constructive changes from one’s partner, or taking the time to understand each partner’s perspective, couples headed for divorce instead engage in a barrage of complaints. In many marriages that are close to the point of divorce, partners often feel that they are always being criticized or are never doing things right. After a while such a marriage becomes tiresome, and each partner begins to retreat in order to self-protect.

Defensiveness:

When you feel attacked and criticized, you defend. Defensiveness is one of the hallmarks of a failing marriage. Instead of having conversations and being curious about each other, couples who are on their way to a divorce, tend to simply stick to their guns and play the blame game. Instead of listening for their partner’s feeling and showing that they care, they instead focus on telling their partner why their complaint is unreasonable or wrong. Over time, each partner becomes an island onto themselves, focused simply on proving their own point at the expense of their partner. In this kind of atmosphere, each partner ends up feeling not understood and this of course leads to emotional disconnection. When you are at war, you retreat behind a wall and stop making yourself vulnerable and receptive to your partner. With so much effort dedicated to defending, love dwindles, and both partners often end up feeling deprived and unhappy.

Contempt:

Being in an intimate relationship with a partner is not only a source of joy and love. We often also experience intense anger and even hatred. When our partner disappoints us, when we feel afraid of losing them, or when we don’t feel unconditionally cared for, intense anger is often evoked in us. Although the adult part of us realizes that love is never unconditional, the child within often has a fantasy that it is. When our inner child feels deprived, strong feelings can be evoked that can lead us call our partner names and make comments that undercut our partners’ self-esteem. However, it pays to think twice before saying such things. John Gottman found that couples who end up divorcing, tend to have a high rate of contempt and hostility toward each other. Whereas strong marriages are slanted toward interactions that serve to build each other up, couples who end up divorcing oftentimes end up in negative cycles of cutting each other down.

Stonewalling:

Although some couples think simply ignoring their spouse is a pathway toward peace, fact is, the absence of a response, can be like depriving your partner of oxygen. Researchers on human attachment have found a lack of response a much greater sign of danger than an angry response. For this reason, many couples actually pick fights or provoke their partner into feeling angry or jealous. At least, with this response, they know their partner “sees” them and that they more than likely care. When our partner simply ignores us, it is easy to feel that we don’t even exist. At the level of our “animal” instinct or mammalian brain this often gets interpreted as a danger signal that we are without support and that nobody cares about our existence. Since at our core we are social beings, such absence of love is a threat to our basic survival needs and can send us into panic. In certain partners who had parents who often were absent, any resemblance of this deprivation will evoke fear and anger at their partner for inducing this fear. John Gottman also found that couples who stop acknowledging their partners existence and start to live parallel lives are at the greatest risk for divorce. It is often much easier to restore connection in couples who fight a lot, than it is to restore it, in couples who have simply shut down their emotional response to each other. So the next time you give your spouse the cold shoulder or ignore their bids for connection, know that you are causing harm to your marriage, and try to find at least some way to engage.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I help couples develop better communication skills and restore emotional connection.                     To read more, visit my website: www.bettertherapy.com

How to Communicate with Your Partner without Starting a Fight

A frequent concern couples have is how to express their disagreements without starting a fight.

Learning how to communicate with your partner in a way that minimizes your partner’s defensiveness and makes it possible to have a conversation and not an argument is vital to the success of any relationship.

Having a conversation and having an argument are two very different things…

Argument:

In an argument, we try to convince our partner that we are right and that they are wrong. Oftentimes this leads to an escalation of conflict, because our partner is unlikely to simply agree that we are right, and is more likely to defend themselves or find convincing arguments why we are wrong. Even if our partner agrees with us, we may discover that it is a rather hollow victory: Our partner may simply have agreed with us to keep the peace, and may gradually end up becoming more distant from us, as they increasingly begin to feel that there is no room in the relationship for them to be who they are.

Conversation:

In a conversation, on the other hand, the focus shifts from convincing your partner that you are right to truly understanding your partner’s perspective. Even if you don’t agree about something, you can still attempt to understand what motivates each of your actions, and what feelings, beliefs, and perceptions underlie each of your complaints. The benefit of this approach, is that each partner can then feel heard and understood, and this typically brings partners closer to each other, and increases both partners tolerance and appreciation for each other’s differences.

How to Communicate without Starting a Fight: 

In the Gottman Method of couples therapy, couples are instructed to use the following guidelines in order to learn how to communicate without starting a fight:

Speaker:

  • Initiate a conversation in a soft rather than accusatory manner
  • Focus on your own experience, not on your partner
  • Focus on stating a positive need, instead of complaining about what your partner isn’t doing

Starting a conversation in a soft manner can be done in many ways. It can involve things like acknowledging that “you may or may not be right”, that “it is probably ridiculous to even bring this up, but…”, or that you don’t want to start a fight and you know that your partner is “doing many things right, but…” This is different from a more abrupt start up where you communicate that you feel entitled to your complaint and come across as self-rigtheous and accusatory.

Focusing on your experience means taking the focus off your partner, and sharing your own internal reactions, feelings, and interpretations. Instead of labeling your partner’s actions, or speaking about a situation in absolute terms, you turn the focus inward. Instead of saying things like, “it wasn’t right when you…” or “you were being very inconsiderate when you”, you instead look beneath your self-righteous anger and get in touch with your softer and more vulnerable emotions. Say something like, “I guess when you came home late again tonight (non-judgmental description), I started feeling lonely and started thinking that I wasn’t very important to you” Not something like, “you know you are always late, and I’m getting tired of sitting around waiting for you. It seems like you just don’t care about my feelings”

Focusing on stating a positive need instead of a criticism, means trying to pinpoint what it is you would like the two of you to do more of. In the example of your partner being late, the hidden need might be for the two of you to be closer with each other. Your sense of loneliness and disappointment when your partner is late, might be a clue that you have been feeling distant from your partner for a while. The trick now is to state what you want rather than what you don’t want. Instead of saying, “I’m tired of you being late”, you might instead say, “can we do more things together where we can connect with each other. I have been feeling rather lonely as of late”.

If you learn how to communicate with your partner using the three rules above, likelihood is that your partner will not feel attacked and will be able to actually listen and respond to your concern…

Listener:

If you are not the person voicing the complaint, but instead the one having to respond to your partner’s criticism, try to apply one of the following skills:

  • Don’t defend yourself or counter-attack
  • Validate your partner’s experience

Don’t defend yourself when your partner brings up a concern. Even if your partner may bring up an issue in an accusatory way, realize that underneath the anger, your partner likely feels hurt, rejected, or wounded in some way. Even if you notice yourself getting angry and ready to counter-attack, try to bite your tongue. Make a conscious decision to set your own issues to the side for the time being, and begin to listen for what your partner is really feeling and experiencing.

Validate your partner’s experience. You may not agree with how your partner interprets or sees things, and your partner’s feelings may seem quite irrational to you. This, however, is when you must make an effort to ask clarifying question to understand how your partner has arrived at his or her conclusions. You must try to find the logic in your partner’s perspective, so you can repeat your understanding back to them. Try to acknowledge and validate that if you were in their shoes, made the same kinds of interpretations, and had the same kind of values, you too would feel the way they do. Realize that by validating and saying that you understand, you are not saying that you agree, nor are you saying that your own feelings are invalid. In a relationship there is room for two valid perspectives on the same situation. The important thing is that both of you can feel that your perspectives are heard.

A Small Change Can Have a Large Effect:

Whether you are “the speaker” or “the listener”, it is important to realize that you can change an interaction by doing any of these 5 suggestions at any point in an interaction. Maybe your partner brings up a concern in an accusatory manner, and you decide to not respond in a defensive way, thus breaking the typical cycle of attack-defend. Or maybe you correct yourself in the middle of voicing your own complaint by making an effort to focus more on your own feelings than on labeling your partner’s. Each time you stop reacting to your partner and make a conscious decision to take control of the interaction, you increase the likelihood of turning an argument into a conversation. The benefits of learning how to communicate with your partner can be profound, so the next time you find yourself itching to let something off your chest, try using one of the five rules.

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I use a variety of proven methods to help couples get their relationships back on track. Visit my website to read more about my approach to couples therapy or to schedule an appointment.

Relationships: How to Make Up After a Fight (and Learn From It)

A sign of a strong relationship is not that you never fight or argue. Disagreements and arguments are inevitable when we are emotionally invested in someone. Contrary to popular wisdom, however, fights do not have to tear us apart, but can actually serve as pathways to greater intimacy… 

Couples who don’t fight can only avoid doing so by suppressing their feelings and withdrawing emotionally, and this is not a sign of a healthy relationship.

The secret to a fulfilling relationship is therefore not to avoid saying or doing things that will lead to a fight, but to be able to recover from  fights when they DO happen and to learn from them.

Unfortunately some couples never revisit each person’s complaints after the fight is over. Happy to be done with the disagreement, they table their concerns, not wanting to start another argument. The result is that the issues leading to the fight never really get resolved. Instead they will simmer in the background and become the cause of new fights in the future…

The Cause of Most Fights

Most couples think that what causes them to fight is the expression of their needs and feelings (saying what they really think and feel). In most cases, however, this is not true. Fights usually happen because needs and feelings have NOT been expressed. The fight often erupts because one partner has finally had it and can’t stuff their emotions anymore.

What many couples fail to see is that having an argument is not the same as having a conversation.

When we argue we hurl out accusations. We are tired and fed up. We want our partner to feel sorry. We say things out of anger.

Of course this rarely works to our advantage, because our partner now feels attacked and stops listening to what we are saying.

Having a conversation, on the other hand, is about expressing yourself in a non-accusatory manner that will allow your partner to listen, and for both of you to feel understood.

Most couples fear revisiting the fight they had yesterday because they are afraid that it will simply restart the fight. They don’t know HOW to have a conversation about their issues that doesn’t turn into a fight.

But issues don’t go away just because we don’t talk about them. This is why it is important for any couple to have the skills to have the conversation that never took place.

The Aftermath of a Fight:

Couples therapist and researcher John Gottman has developed a step-by-step exercise couples can use to revisit their fight when they are calm and address the real issues that fuelled the fight. When these conversations happen they can strengthen a relationship and even be a source of greater intimacy between partners. They also tend to decrease the build-up of frustrations that will otherwise lead to fights in the future.

5 Steps to How to Make Up After a Fight:

 Here is my own modified version of Gottman’s method for how to make up after a fight and use disagreements as a source of greater connection: Sit down when you have both calmed down and are not busy or distracted and agree to revisit what happened the day before. Each person will take turn expressing their side of the story and will follow each of the 5 steps below:

1. Identify and Share How You Felt

Yesterday you were angry, but did you really stop to think what emotions fuelled the anger or why you reacted so strongly to certain things your partner did or said? It is often the case that softer and more uncomfortable emotions are hidden underneath our self-righteous anger. Have a look at the following list of feelings, to see if any of them might have been true for you:

I felt…

  1. defensive
  2. not listened to
  3. feelings got hurt
  4. totally glooded
  5. angry
  6. sad
  7. unloved
  8. misunderstood
  9. criticized
  10. took a complaint personally
  11. like you didn’t even like me
  12. not cared about
  13. worried
  14. afraid
  15. unsafe
  16. tense
  17. I was right and you were wrong
  18. Both of us were partly right
  19. Out of control
  20. Frustrated
  21. Righteously indignant
  22. Morally justified
  23. Unfairly picked on
  24. Unappreciated
  25. Disliked
  26. Unattractive
  27. Stupid
  28. Morally outraged
  29. Taken for granted
  30. Like leaving
  31. Like staying and talking things through
  32. I was overwhelmed with emotion
  33. Not calm
  34. Stubborn
  35. Powerless
  36. I had no influence
  37. I wanted to win this one
  38. My opinion didn’t even matter
  39. There was a lot of give and take
  40. I had no feelings at all
  41. I had no idea what I was feeling
  42. Lonely
  43. Alienated
  44. Ashamed
  45. Guilty
  46. Culpable
  47. Abandoned
  48. Disloyal
  49. Exhausted
  50. Foolish
  51. Overwhelmed
  52. Remorseful
  53. Shocked
  54. Tired

2. Describe the series of events that led you to feel this way

Help your partner understand how you perceived the events unfolding the day before (what led up to the fight? what made you react? and how did the fight unfold?). It is important in this step to speak from your own point of view: Describe yourself and your perceptions from an objective and detached perspective, like a witness giving an account of what they observed on a crime scene. Don’t guess your partner’s intentions and don’t assign blame. Simply focus on your interactions and how you perceived or interpreted what you heard or what your partner did. Instead of saying “when you didn’t care how I felt”, say “when you walked out during our fight, it made me think you didn’t care”. In other words, focus on how YOU made sense of the events, acknowledging that another person might not have interpreted events the way you did or assigned the same meaning to them.

3. Identify and talk about sensitivities that might have been evoked and where these sensitivities might come from

This is your chance to reflect a little bit about why you might be particularly sensitive to certain feelings, fears, or beliefs. Did feeling unloved remind you of something in your childhood? Did your fear of your partner leaving, remind you of how lonely you felt as a child? Are there times in the past when you have felt similarly to how you felt in the fight? If so, why do think you react so strongly to this particular feeling? What memories do you have involving that feeling? Is there a particular story you can you tell of a time in the past when you felt that way? Help your partner understand the underlying meaning or importance of a particular thought or feeling that you are very sensitive to.

4. Validate you partner’s perspective

When one partner goes through these 3-steps, the other partner’s job is to listen, ask open-ended questions, and clarify to make sure they understand. The listener should not defend themselves, or argue against the other person, but simply try to “get” why the other person reacted how they did. Validating means conveying to your partner that you understand why they reacted the way they did. To validate your partner is not to agree that your partner is right, and you are wrong. It is simply to convey that given a similar set of circumstances, and a similar way of interpreting events, you too would feel the way your partner does. It is important for your partner to hear that you get them, even if you don’t see things their way.

5. What can You do to be Sensitive to Your partner’s Needs and Feelings in the Future?

A final step, which isn’t always necessary, is to have a conversation about what each of you might be able to do differently so as to take each other’s sensitivities and needs into account. I say it is not always necessary because when you truly understand your partner’s reactions and experiences, it naturally follows that you will be more caring towards your partner and more sensitive to their needs.

Next time you have a fight, try to follow this 5-step model of how to make up after a fight. You might discover that disagreements do not have to threaten your relationship, but can actually be a source of greater intimacy and connection. 

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. If you would like more insight into how to communicate more effectively with your partner, click here to get your FREE copy of “The Secrets of Happy Couples: A User’s Guide to a More Fulfilling Relationship”

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Secrets of Successful Relationships: #1 Learning to Be Vulnerable

What is it that makes some couples have more successful and rewarding relationships, and others teeter on the brink of relationship disaster?

The Secret of Successful Relationships:

If you ask me, the secret to a successful relationship or marriage lies in the capacity to be vulnerable. Most relationship conflicts are the result of people’s distaste for admitting to themselves and to their partner that they depend on each other, that they worry that the other person doesn’t love them, that they feel disappointed or hurt, or that they miss the other person and wish they could be closer or spend more time together.

What is communicated, however, is often not these things. Instead of the softer, more vulnerable emotions, we instead communicate our frustrations and our anger, our jealousy and our self-righteousness. Instead of asking for what we really want, we blame our partner for being faulty, inconsiderate, or wrong.

The Prescription for Successful Relationships:

It doesn’t really matter what couples therapist you ask, the prescription for successful relationships will almost always be the same: To have successful relationships, you must learn to communicate from a more vulnerable and more genuine place. Rather than pick fights about peripheral concerns or substitute emotions, you must be able to address the real issue.

Instead of focusing on your anger, for example, your couples therapist will help you redirect the focus to that underlying vulnerability which precipitated the anger, and will help you communicate that emotion instead.

If your spouse is out having a good time with his work colleagues, for example, the immediate reaction might be one of anger at him for never being home to help with the household chores. If we dig a little deeper, however, we might discover that the real reason for the anger is one of jealousy about sitting home alone while your husband is out having a good time. Further digging, might even reveal that the jealousy is but a veil for an underlying fear that you are not really very fun to be around and a wish you have that your husband would choose to spend his time with YOU.

Anger as a Veil for Other Emotions:

Instead of communicating the longing, the fears, and the doubts, however, it is often safer and less painful to communicate your anger.

Psychologists refer to emotions that are reactions to other emotions as secondary emotions. Although anger at someone, can sometimes serve as the original response to an event, it is more often a way of protecting yourself from a more vulnerable emotion.

To say to your wife that you feel like she may not be as attracted to you anymore and that you are worried of losing her, is a lot more difficult than giving her the silent treatment when she speaks at length and with great excitement about activities at work that don’t include you.

What Prevents Us from Being Vulnerable?

Exposing and communicating the more vulnerable emotion is what most couples therapist recommend to create and maintain successful relationships. But why is it so difficult?

The first reason for this difficulty is that you might judge yourself for having your vulnerable emotions. A voice inside of you might be telling you that you are weak for feeling jealous, or that you should be stronger than having a need for more closeness or more affection.

The second reason, might be that you are not certain that your partner will treat these vulnerable emotions delicately and respectfully. You may be worried that your partner will stomp on you when you are already down, or that your partner will use your admissions against you at a later time.

Finally, a third reason might be that your vulnerable emotions are not always rational and can seem immature. You may therefore be too ashamed to even admit to them, not to mention, to speak of them out loud.

The result of all these prohibitions, judgments, and dangers is that instead of communicating our longings, our fears, our doubts, and our needs, we end up attacking our partner and creating distance between us instead.

Why Couples Therapy Can Help:

Couples therapy is therefore both about facilitating greater insight into our vulnerabilities, and about facilitating a safe, respectful, and trusting relationship where these emotions and needs can be communicated.

When done right, the end result is often less conflict and more closeness.

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., an experienced couples therapist in Houston, Texas. Read more about my approach to couples therapy and learn how you can schedule an appointment. 

5 Easy Ways to Improve Communication in Your Relationship

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How to Stop Arguing and Start Communicating:

Most couples arguments are like rituals. Every now and then when each partner has bottled things up long enough, a fight will erupt and fury will be unleashed. These kinds of fights can often be cathartic, but they rarely if ever solve anything.

Why? Because when one partner is dishing out, the other is busy preparing a come-back. The result is that aggression by the one, leads to aggression by the other. Insult gets rebutted with insult, and no real constructive change comes out of it.

Wouldn’t it be great, however, if the things you complain about could actually get resolved? And wouldn’t it be nice if your partner would feel understood to the point where he or she no longer keeps criticizing you about the same old issues?

Here are my 5 easy to implement communication skills that will help you get your point across and improve your relationship…

1.    Stick with the Facts

One of the surest ways to get your partner’s anger boiling is to label their actions using your own choice phrases. Nouns and adjectives used to describe the other person will often make them feel judged and ready to rebuff. Calling someone “inconsiderate” is different from pointing out what the other person did that felt inconsiderate to YOU. You will usually obtain a much better response from your loved one, if you simply describe the situation at hand. Recount  the other person’s actions without attributing evil motivations or categorizing these actions as good or bad.  “When you took 30 minutes to get ready this morning, it made us late for work” is quite different from saying “You are always late in the morning and it’s very inconsiderate”.

2.    Use “I feel…”

It is  common nowadays to make fun of the therapist who helps couples communicate better by having each partner rephrase their criticism with the opening statement: “I feel…” Nevertheless, when done right, it is exceedingly difficult to argue against another person’s feelings. Rephrasing your criticism in terms of how something made you feel, removes the focus from the wrong-doings of your partner, and puts focus instead on your own perceptions and experiences. For example, saying “When you entered the house without saying hello to me, I felt disappointed and started to think that you don’t really care about me”, invites a quite different response than: “Why did you not say hello when you came home today; you obviously don’t care!” The focus here is really not so much on using the phrase “I feel”, as it is about qualifying your annoyance as a result of how you viewed the situation rather than the objective wrongness of the other person.

3.    Ask for what you want – not for what you don’t want

One thing that is exceedingly difficult for people in relationships is to express what they want rather than what they don’t want. It is quite easy to notice what we don’t want. Our feelings often alert us when someone has overstepped a boundary or acted in a way that we consider unacceptable. However, underneath every complaint lies an unexpressed wish. Instead of saying, “I don’t want you to stay out late with your friends all the time: When are you ever going to spend time with me?”, it might be better to say: “I really wish we could spend more time together. What do you say we arrange a date night?” In the first example, it is easy for your partner to think they are being criticized and being told what to do. In the second example, it is a lot more difficult to feel defensive. Here what you are really expressing is that you value something about your partner, and who can really get annoyed about that?

4.    Be Fair in Your Assessment

When you get angry or upset, it is easy to build a case in your mind for why you are justified in being angry or upset. Oftentimes this can lead you to make totalitarian statements that are almost always wrong. Saying things like “you ALWAYS go and watch TV without helping me with dinner”, is probably not entirely accurate. Because terms like ALWAYS and NEVER are almost always NOT true, your partner is likely to feel misjudged when you use them. Now instead of addressing the real issue, the conversation will more than likely become about the fairness of your judgment. “Don’t you remember that I cooked dinner for you the other day?!” So BE fair. It is the best way to make sure your partner will be able to hear your issue.

5.    Become a Good Listener

When your partner brings up a concern they have about you, it is easy to become defensive. Instead of hearing what your partner’s concern is, it is tempting to instead think of a reason why your partner is wrong, or to return the insult by blaming your partner for something as well. Instead of doing this, try to really understand what your partner is feeling unhappy about. Set aside your own complaints for a moment and become curious about how your partner really views the world. Why is going out more often important to him? Why does spending money on frivolous things annoy her? Do you really know what meaning he or she attributes to these events? Try to ask questions until you can repeat back to your partner exactly why it is they feel dissatisfied. If you model this behavior, likelihood is that your partner will feel really understood, and will return the favor next time… 

About me: I am a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. For more information about couples therapy, please visit my website.