All couples have disagreements, but not all couples have the skills to handle them well. Research suggests that the best indicator of divorce has to do with how couples speak to each other. When couples use judgmental and blaming language, their relationship is threatened. Without the skills to use words respectfully, even the smallest disagreements can block the intimacy and trust that couples need to succeed.
As a relationship coach working with couples, I’ve seen how ineffective communication patterns can keep even the best-intentioned partners from having the relationships they desire. Fortunately, I’ve also seen how the wisdom of Compassionate (nonviolent) Communication, the framework that guides my coaching, helps couples develop new approaches – with new language – to bolster their relationships.
First, I invite couples to commit to stopping their destructive communication pattern. For some couples, this pattern includes loud “fights” that threaten to wake up the household and the neighborhood. Other couples have the opposite pattern in which one or both parties withdraw and avoid the issue. Both patterns include language that leaves one or both parties dissatisfied with the outcome of the interaction and usually fails to bring resolution. This dissatisfaction breeds resentment that corrodes the foundation of the relationship. By not resolving the issue, it is pushed into the future, allowing the destructive pattern to continue.
I offer couples two tools to help them disrupt their habitual approach to disagreements. The first tool is becoming aware of their triggers – the things others do or say that cause them to react, often unconsciously, and move into their ineffective patterns. Increased awareness of these triggers makes it easier for each person to honor their commitment “to stop before it’s too late.”
The other tool is to develop a “safe” or “timeout” word to use when either party senses the pull toward their ineffective pattern. This word reminds the couple that their relationship is too important to risk by continuing down the path of old, hurtful and ineffective habits. When the safe word is spoken, both parties are invited to take a break from the conversation and consider why the conflict started in the first place.
Once a couple has some tools to stop their dysfunctional pattern, I help each party translate automatic judgments of the other person into a realization of “what matters” to them. In Compassionate Communication, the things that matter to us are called Universal Human Needs. Needs are shared by all people and can be met in many ways. Categories of human needs include survival, self-expression, safety and purpose, as well as what matters to us in the social and emotional realms.
Judgmental language is a common trigger for many couples because it focuses attention on “what’s wrong with the other person.” Language that declares or even implies wrongness provokes defensiveness. When judgments are translated into human needs, both parties see what they want or need, instead of what the other person isn’t doing “right.” This shift in communication increases mutual understanding and softens words.
Here is a very simple example to show how understanding basic human needs and apply compassionate communication skills: One couple I worked with often found themselves in disagreement over “dinner.” The woman loved to cook and found great joy in making amazing, comfort food dinners for her husband. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to enjoy the meals because he had some health goals that prompted him to favor lighter dinner meals with fewer calories. They came to me locked in frustration and conflict: She was judging her husband as “ungrateful” and “hard-hearted” for not enjoying the meals she prepared; he was judging his wife as “inconsiderate” for cooking these high-calorie foods for him.
After educating them about the concept of human needs, I helped them translate their judgments and words. The woman recognized that preparing the dense dinners met her needs to express herself and show competence in the kitchen, but doing so did not mean her husband’s needs. The man recognized his wife’s needs to create meals and be appreciated and was able to communicate his need for support as he worked to achieve his health goals.
Understanding their own needs and the other’s needs shifted the couple’s perspectives and led to agreements that met all their needs. She would explore new recipes and ways to make meals that fit her husband’s diet choices, but that also allowed her to express her love of cooking. He would be more active in expressing his gratitude to his wife for her willingness to cook for him and try more meal options.
The words couples use make a significant difference. Choosing to break patterns that don’t serve the relationship is the first step couples can take toward adopting new language and building a deeper, more trusting and intimate relationship.
Making the decision to address judgmental language by understanding the needs motivating each person is a huge leap toward using words that build rather than destroy. When a couple develops the capacity to honor all their own needs and the needs of their partner, disagreements become opportunities to deepen the trust and intimacy that holds their relationship together. FBN
By David McCain
David McCain, the owner of Communicating With Heart, is a life and relationship coach who fulfills his life purpose by helping individuals and businesses communicate more effectively. He helps individuals increase their well-being through training, coaching and mediation, and offers training, consulting and motivational speaking services to help businesses get work done more effectively, efficiently and enjoyably. To learn more about Communicating With Heart or to make an appointment with McCain, visit CommunicatingWithHeart.com or call 619-218-7554.