Clear, calm communication
While I’m no Scrooge, during the hubbub of December, I do look forward to January. For one, the lengthening days become particularly noticeable towards the end of month. The longer days herald spring, which comes early to the Northwest. It’s a season I happily greet.
But January has a dark side too. It brings many telephone calls to our behavioral health department requesting appointments for couples whose marriages are falling apart. Couples worked hard to keep everything on an even keel for Christmas. They didn’t want to spoil the holiday for their children. Most parents loathe the idea that their youngsters should have a holiday marred by divorce, separation, or marital strife. They delay getting help until the New Year.
More often than not, couples point to poor communication as the culprit behind their marital woes. Yes, their conflicts center on the big five—sex, money, children, in-laws, and housework. Hopefully, they just have diverging views on one or two of these topics. But the universal problem is the inability to discuss these issues without escalating into a major battle.
I get to watch these firefights in my office---Mary tells Joe that he just doesn’t clean up after himself. “I’m tired of picking up your dirty socks off of the floor”, she barks. “Well you have no idea how exhausted I am after a day of work”, he retorts. Excuse me—What does one thing have to do with the other? But this kind of discourse quickly turns into a rock-throwing fest. By the end of the “discussion” neither Joe nor Mary have any idea what they were talking about in the beginning!
As a veteran of 42 years of life together with Diane, I am no stranger to these kinds of skirmishes, especially during our early years of marriage and child rearing. When I look back at these clashes, I realize how easy it is to feel self-righteous and resentful. These emotions quickly turn a conversation into an angry interchange that goes nowhere fast.
Here are some suggestions for calmer communication.
- Don’t discuss emotional issues when you’re angry. Timing is everything. If it’s the right time and place, water flows downhill. If it’s the wrong moment and location, it’s like pushing a boulder up a hill. Avoid the inclination to talk about something when you’re mad. Make an appointment to discuss charged issues when you’re not tired, hungry, or angry. It can turn a debate into a dialogue.
- Work to understand the other person’s point of view. This is simpler said than done. It’s so much easier to lecture your partner about your perspective. But if both partners seek to understand each other, they will have a greater appreciation for each other’s point of view. Therein lie the seeds of reconciliation.
- Respond instead of react. When we feel criticized, our first impulse is to defend ourselves or go on the attack—all of which ends the possibility of resolution. THINK before you speak—How do I want to respond to my mate? How can I say this in a more positive way? How can I meet her halfway? Diplomacy in intimate relationships is the best way to go.
- Get help sooner rather than later. This is my lament. So many couples come in for help after years of strife have drained their marriage of love and good will. It makes it very hard to help them. If your roof leaked, you wouldn’t wait until the ceiling collapsed in your bedroom before you called the roofer. Ask your health care provider for a referral to a mental health clinician who works with couples when you are unable to resolve important problems.