Trust and commitment are the outcomes of good friendship and intimacy, constructive conflict management, willingness to support each other’s life goals and the building of a shared meaning.
People in happy, well functioning relationships tend to have an overall positive view of their partner. These couples have genuine respect for the other in what they do and how they do it. Supportive partners give each other the benefit of the doubt and can extinguish conflict before it spirals out of control. They are good at shaking off criticism through empathy. For example, “I know she’s had a really stressful day, I wont take it personally”. Or they can easily express hurt in a way that’s received well. They can say “I feel sad about the way that comment was made and I would love it if we can talk about what’s really going on”. These couples repair well after conflict and then they move on. They don’t get bogged down in the problem because they spend that time exchanging each other’s broader perspective.
But by the time I see couples for therapy, their communication style has usually evolved to being contemptuous and hostile or they have become emotionally withdrawn and avoidant of communication. They are more likely than not to have an overall negative view of their partner. Little jabs of criticism and contempt can be habit forming. For couples at this point, even a neutral comment can be interpreted as an attack. And by this stage, toxic forms of communication feature frequently.
The toxic communication interplay unfolds like this: An issues gets raised but not in a constructive way, rather in a way that the other person feels blamed. It may be expressed as real criticism or it may be a neutral comment that is perceived as criticism. Regardless though, the other person feels personally attacked and so becomes defensive, leaving the original issue unaddressed. Often the conversation moves into describing each other’s behaviour negatively and this can lead to a reflexive adrenal stress response (often called Fight or Flight) which pulls us out of a rational mindset. Often in an attempt to regulate this stress response, “stonewalling” (halting all communication - even as a form of punishment) occurs. Thus the original issue, no matter how big or small, never gets dealt with.
The toxic communication interplay usually unfolds like this:
Criticism (or perceived criticism), then
Defensiveness (a counter attack or deprecation), then
Stonewalling and emotional withdrawal.
The Things we say to each other matter. A lot.
In couples therapy, the path to renewed trust and commitment is paved with exercises to change toxic communication styles into those that foster respect and compassion. Strategies involve learning a new dialogue and, at first, more structured and deliberate ways of communicating. It’s always truly amazing to see the tears that well up when one, or often both partners, having felt so emotionally starved, actually hears that their partner does think they are amazing. That they do notice what a great job they’re doing raising the kids. That they do appreciate everything they do for the family. And that they’re sorry they don’t say it more often.
The words we use on a daily basis have lasting effects on the harmony of the relationship long after those words have been spoken.
The statistics on relationship satisfaction after having kids is quite low. Only around 30% of couples report satisfaction in their relationship after the kids arrive. But what we do know is what that 30% or so are doing – and therefore why they are happy.
They take an interest in the inner lives of each other and regularly ask each other open questions to discover more. They celebrate each other’s successes, no matter how small. They empathise with each other’s stresses, no matter what they are. They side with their partner, validate their emotions and refrain from trying to ‘fix’ the problem. They just listen and validate. They respond to and engage in idle chit chat (rather than ignoring it or responding with hostile remarks). They have effective coping strategies for typical problems, even if they perpetually disagree on certain issues.
Common solvable problems that we deal with in couples therapy often relate to
Sex, intimacy and affection
Involvement of in-laws and other extra-family relationships
Differing ideas about financial goals
Interestingly, happy, functional couples regularly experience disagreement on these issues but their communication style and willingness to find ways to be flexible for each other means they can work out a solution that fits with both of their most intrinsically important needs.
As long as both partners hold a glimmer of hope, they will be able to return to that original place of respect that founded the relationship. Time, stress, personal change and children can send couples down the path to bitterness or emotional withdrawal. Strategies-based couples therapy is highly effective in renewing the connection and finding greater shared meaning.
Did you know that you can learn many of the basic principles for making your relationship work in a one day workshop? Based on the New York Times Best Seller “The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work”, this workshop is designed to equip you with effective tools to get things on track between the two of you.