Save this Marriage

Effective Communication

It's not about "fixing" but "accepting"

April 30, 2010

Words are beautiful. They can communicate love, gratitude, encouragement and support, which build, enhance, and connect two people at a very deep level. At the same time, words can wreak havoc. Words can convey anger, resentment, hatred and revenge, leaving misunderstanding, pain and destruction in its path. Effective communication is an art.

Yet there's more to communication than expressing words. Successful communication between two people, and in marriage especially, depends so much on the vital skills of active listening and empathetic listening. As we say in Psalms 40:7, "You have carved out for me ears."

Active listening requires you to listen with an open mind, uncluttered by inner dialogue. It takes fully focusing and understanding what the other person is saying, and not on formulating your response. Active listening is about climbing out of your shoes and into the shoes of the speaker.

When we really listen and acknowledge another person's pain, resentment or inner conflict, we give them a chance to talk more about what's troubling them. The more they express, the more relief they'll feel and the more clarity they'll gain. Ultimately, they are more capable of coping with their feelings and problems.

The trouble is that too often we tend to feel a sense of responsibility when listening to our spouse's trouble. Our task is not about fixing but understanding, accepting, and empowering them by helping them explore the situation. In effect, we are gently conferring the responsibility back to them. With our support, we allow them to work it through at their own pace. We help them think of options they haven't considered. And ultimately their decisions have to be their own; they will have to live with and implement them.

One way to listen actively is by asking questions. In a voice that does not convey confrontation but rather inquisitiveness, you can ask:

  • "What did you mean by….?"
  • "When did you first start feeling this way?"
  • "What about the incident bothered you the most?"
  • "How would you like this to be different?"

Empathetic listening is the act of taking into consideration the other person's perspective. It is the ability to understand your spouse's thoughts, feelings, and actions, and to communicate this understanding.

One way to show empathy is to repeat what your spouse says so that he or she will know you get what they're saying. You can also ask a question to see if you've fully understood. Be genuinely curious and that sense of wonderment will come through. When you empathize, your goal is to understand, not to argue or state your point of view. Reflect what your spouse says in a nonjudgmental way so as to truly grasp the essence of what he or she is expressing, and, most of all, acknowledge that feeling.

Whether or not you agree with your spouse is irrelevant. Giving your spouse the chance to express, vent or clarify his thoughts, with you as an active listener, is the greatest gift.

These statements, expressed in a gentle tone of voice can be helpful:

  • "It sounds like…"
  • "I just want to make sure that I understand what you're saying."

Keep in mind that there's a difference between empathy and sympathy. For instance, while sympathy focuses on how I feel when I hear what my spouse is saying, i.e. sorry, pity, etc., empathy is zeroing in on how my spouse feels. Empathy empowers, sympathy dis-empowers. Sympathy subtly suggests that you're incapable and need my help to work things out. Empathy conveys the feeling that I am with you, I understand you, and I trust your ability to work things out.

How to Disagree

April 23, 2010

Even in the best of marriages, disagreements are normal. No two people will see eye to eye on everything. If they did, wouldn't one of them have been enough in this world? As Oscar Wilde said, "Be yourself; everyone else is already taken."

Too often, couples try to whitewash differences. They may achieve a momentary illusion of peace. But spouses will feel diminished by holding back their true selves. Distance and distrust will result. In a healthy relationship, couples are able to disagree respectfully. No one is born with this skill. It is not taught in school.

Acclaimed family therapist Virginia Satir coined the phrase, "Parents are the architects of the family." Children learn how to communicate by observing their parents their parents' behaviors, and they carry the learning into adulthood, unless they decide to alter the pattern.

Satir formulated five different ways people communicate when disagreement exists. These patterns show up in all relationships – couples, families, friendships, coworkers, and others. They are:

1. Congruent: Congruent communication is respectful both to the speaker and the listener. The person's spoken words are consistent with his or her feelings, thoughts and nonverbal signals. "I" statements are an example of congruent communication, such as "I want," "I would rather not," and "I like."

2. Blaming: A blamer lashes out aggressively at the other person, with "You" statements like "you always," "you never," "you should," or "you shouldn't." The communication is judgmental and controlling. A blamer tries to rule by intimidation and may behave like a bully. Blamers may get their way in the short run, but the relationship suffers because the "victim" is likely to feel resentful and/or helpless.

3. Placating: This person does not express disagreement openly, but passively goes along. He or she is unlikely to tell a blamer to cut it out.

4. Reasonable: This person uses intellect to deny the reality that feelings are facts, probably when he or she is not comfortable hearing them expressed. For example, a husband who tells his wife that it doesn't make sense for her to be upset (or annoyed, hurt, sad, etc.) is using reason to discount her feelings.

5. Irrelevant: This person does not respond directly to another when there is a disagreement; instead, s/he may make a joke or change the subject.

No one is perfect, but husbands and wives who value their relationship should strive to use congruent communication. Practice using I-statements, which are honest expressions of one's feelings, thoughts, wants, likes, and dislikes. The opposite of an I-statement is a You-statement, which sounds judgmental or controlling.

Suppose a wife wants to call a repair person to fix a broken refrigerator, but her husband thinks it's not worth fixing. He wants to buy a new one. If she says to him, "You're wrong," or "You're a spendthrift," she is blaming, and he is likely to either counter-attack or withdraw passively. If she says instead, "I think we should first find out the cost to repair it," he'll be more likely to hear her.

Our sages say, "Words from the heart enter the heart." Congruent messages fall into this category; they are a bridge that makes it easy for the speaker and receiver to connect.

Still, some people have difficulty hearing I-statements. For example, in the above situation, after the wife states her opinion, the husband could say "You're crazy," or "You're cheap." Ideally, she will avoid taking the bait. She should summon up her courage and make another I-statement, such as, "I don't like being called names. I will discuss this with you when we are both able to do so respectfully."

A spouse who resists the temptation to respond in kind to a verbal attack is praiseworthy. A tenet of Judaism is that a strong person is someone who refrains from giving in to an unhealthy instinct. Ethics of Our Fathers 4:1 includes the saying: "Who is strong? He who subdues his [evil] inclination, as it is stated: He who is slow to anger is better than the strong man, and he who masters his passions is better than one who conquers a city" (Proverbs 16:32).

Most people can learn to communicate congruently. Weekly Marriage Meetings, the subject of another article on this site, provide a great opportunity for practice.

Some couples get stuck in a negative way of relating. In a hostile climate it is counterproductive to use I-statements. Some people are simply too emotionally damaged to handle them. They are afraid to be emotionally vulnerable and become uncomfortable when others are. Too often they deal with their anxiety by lashing out at the person who opens up. Anyone who wants to improve such a relationship should seek assistance from a skilled psychotherapist.

Make it a habit to communicate congruently. You will foster trust, intimacy, wisdom, and harmony; in effect, you will create the marriage you've always wanted. Use I-statements and encourage your spouse to do the same. The rewards are well worth the effort.

Put On a Happy Face

April 16, 2010

Our sages tell us that a person's face is considered "a public place": others see us and are affected by what we show them. The Talmud (Baba Batra 9) explains that smiling at someone is an even higher form of charity than giving him money, because the smile will enhance the recipient's well-being on every level of body and soul.

These principles hold true whether we are out on the street affecting strangers, or whether we're in the privacy of our homes affecting our spouse and kids. Whoever looks at us and sees our mood will be affected by it, for better or worse. We can "make" or "break" their day.

Tools for Change

We can use our knowledge of facial expression to impact our marriages. To begin with, we always want to take the position that the well-being of the marriage is something that we have some control over. If we take the opposite position – that we are victims to our spouses – then we are helpless and there is nothing we can do to effect a positive change in the relationship. On the other hand, a decent working position is to accept that there is always something we can do, but the results may be limited by the behavior of our spouses. So let's assume you believe that there is something you can do to positively change your marriage when it's at a low.

A second principle is that it is okay to always be the one to initiate a change in the cycle. That is to say, when you and your spouse are down in the dumps, it is fine if you are the one to hold a lantern toward the light, again and again. While it is lovely if husband and wife can each take turns doing this job, a marriage can be perfectly healthy even if it is always just one of the partners doing it. Surely the other partner has some other merits even if he or she is not good at initiating positive change. So let's assume that you don't mind being the one who is going to change the current marital mood.

A final principle is that "fake it till you make it" strategies can and should be used in marriage when they lead to positive outcomes. Some people feel that authenticity is a primary value that overrides all other considerations. These folk would not want to "pretend" things were okay when they clearly were not, because that would be breaking the authenticity principle. On the other hand, those who are willing to "fake it till they make it" are result-oriented, and are therefore willing to set aside the authenticity principal on occasions when peace takes precedence. By the way, the Torah considers shalom – peace between people – to be of such priority that it overrides the authenticity principle when it will help to perpetuate peace. This shows us how valuable human harmony is from the Jewish point of view.

Using the Tools

In summation, here's how you can use the principles above to change the marital mood from sour to sweet:

  • Be willing to be the one to change the mood even if you're always the one in this role.
  • Be willing to "fake it till you make it" by altering your countenance accordingly; put on a happy, cheery face even if you don't feel happy when your partner is in the room with you. Enhance the look with happy vocalizations such as humming a little tune, making positive comments on the weather or other neutral topics, or even directing compliments toward your spouse. Act as if you are in a delightful mood whether you are or aren't.

Keep this up as long as necessary – until your spouse "catches" your happy mood and starts to reflect it back to you. Whether it takes hours or days or weeks or months, don't give up. Eventually you will see the results you are looking for.

Address the Issues

Now that you guys are back in sync, you can actually address the issues that triggered a bad cycle. Some people are afraid that things will get unpleasant again, so, once they've lifted the bad mood, they don't want to talk about what went wrong and how to prevent it. This is a major mistake. Couples who make up and don't review what triggered the issue build up marital baggage that can seriously weigh down the marriage over time. Hard as it might be, invite your spouse to sit down with you (preferably over coffee and crumpets) to retrace your steps. If this is impossible, then at least explain the difficulty to your partner and try to arrange some brief marriage counseling. The counselor can help the two of you acquire "safe communication skills" – ways of talking that will be productive and painless.

Empty Nest

April 9, 2010

Dear Tzippora,

My youngest child has just left for university, and my home echoes with a lonely and empty feeling that I didn't expect. My husband and I are suddenly shy and awkward together. I guess I hadn't noticed how much of our daily conversation revolved around the technical details of our son's life, and now there is nothing to take its place. Sometimes it is a relief to disappear into a book or a newspaper, and not even pretend to make conversation. How can I break the silence?

Nothing Left to Say

Dear Nothing Left to Say,

Essentially, married life begins as an empty nest. Yet in order to become effective parents, a married couple must stretch their focus to accommodate the needs of their children. Like a rubber-band's increasing elasticity, the arrival of each child changes the marital dynamic. The needs of a growing family take center stage. However, once children begin to leave home, the stretched out rubber-band must now contract. It is now necessary to re-establish the priority of their bond.

At a crowded family table, nobody will notice if Mom and Dad don't have much to say to each other. Yet at a table set for two, there is nobody else's noise to hide behind. The best way to ensure that a couple is capable of sustaining a conversation on their own is to make sure that they set aside time as a couple throughout the parenting stage. A husband and wife must never allow their relationship to become buried in the chaos of family life. It is the surest strategy for alleviating the strain of the transition back to an empty nest.

However, even in your situation, you can still breathe new life and vitality into your relationship. Begin by opening up to your husband about the loneliness and awkwardness you feel. Is he experiencing it too? Even this simple shared conversation can pave the way for greater feelings of connectedness.

Choose new activities you can both share. Would your husband like to attend an evening lecture series, a concert, or a cooking class? Discuss your options. Plan a real vacation, not a visit to your child at university. If you can't afford a vacation together, fantasize about where you would go if you had the resources. Focus on the opportunities for exploration and growth that are now open to you as a couple.

Start to discuss ideas again. Prepare an interesting thought or a worthy piece of news to share at the dinner table. If you always ate as a family in the dining room, start eating as a couple in the kitchen. If you always ate in the kitchen as a family, move your meal to the dining room, and set the table with your good china.

Western society values youth, but the Torah has always valued age, and the wisdom that comes with life experience. Learn to enjoy this stage in your life, and happiness will lead the way to increased closeness and marital richness.

Feeling lonely in your marriage? Constant fighting, arguing and bickering? Money problems keeping your apart? Or is jealousy ruining your intimacy?

Even the best of marriages experience times of trial, while some marriages seem doomed to constant ugly conflict.

With a roster of rotating marital therapists, this blog will help you gain the communication tools and relationship consciousness to successfully find and build committed, loving and connected relationships.

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