VIDEO BLOG: Marriage communication that leads to connection

Couples often say they have “communication” problems.

In the video below, Rob and Janet show us how to communicate in a way that dissolves all the conflict and leads to a closer connection with each other.

Take a few minutes to watch the video with your partner…

…and then use the discussion questions below to talk about how these three steps can help your relationship.

Safe Conversation: A way of talking without criticizing, of listening without judging, and connecting beyond our differences.

Discussion with your partner:

  1. In what ways do you think you may have limited your ability to connect with each other by either criticizing or judging each other?
  2. What kinds of hidden fears or other emotions do you think are driving these unhealthy reactions to each other?
  3. How do you think these Safe Conversation skills can help you begin to talk without criticizing, listen without judging, and connect beyond your differences?

Click here to download the Couple’s Dialogue that can help you go further in developing your safe conversation skills.

Share with us your insights in the comment section below!

Also…if you haven’t already…

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How to have the kind of marriage communication that leads to closer connection

Experts cite communication problems as the number one reason marriages fail.

But good communication in marriage is not enough, unless that communication leads you to a closer connection with your partner.

That’s because…

Communication is not really the problem in marriage. Feeling disconnected is.

You can have good communication and not feel connected.

I’m not saying communication is not important, because you can’t connect without communicating. What I’m saying is you can communicate without connecting.

Sometimes you may communicate perfectly and still trigger each other’s defenses.

Whenever defenses are triggered, the space between you becomes negative. Negativity makes a conversation unsafe, and that’s what keeps you from connecting.

So…

Whether it’s criticism in your communication, or a judgmental reaction to your partner’s words, this kind of communication will prevent connection and conflict will be the result.

Talking with criticism or listening with judgment can make any subject a contentious one. And that’s when we blame our relationship failure on “communication problems”.

On the other hand, when you talk in a way that leaves you feeling connected, then you can more easily deal with every problem in your relationship.

The Safe Conversation model (aka The Couple’s Dialogue) is a tool that will help you communicate in a way that leads to connection.

Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt have defined a Safe Conversation as…

A way of talking without criticizing, of listening without judging, and connecting beyond our differences.

Let’s consider how this can work for us.

1. Talking without criticizing

Janet said to her husband Rob, “You’re going to kill yourself if you keep eating like that! You know that white sugar is poison!”

Communication? There is no question about what Janet is communicating. It’s crystal clear. But what do you think Rob’s response would be to this kind of communication?

He’d probably see it as criticism, and react by judging Janet’s intent as being disrespectful or controlling. Right?

“Stop telling me what to do! You’re always trying to control me!”

And then this reaction would then trigger further frustration on Janet’s part.

“You never listen to me.”

This downward spiral began with a critical comment.

A safe conversation can eliminate that.

You can talk about almost anything if you’ll say it in a respectful way without criticism.

It’s not what you say but how you say it. Whatever it is you’re talking about is secondary.

As safe conversation is like a truck moving produce.  The truck will deliver whatever it’s carrying: wheat, corn, beans or potatoes, it doesn’t matter.

In the same way a safe conversation will deliver any kind of message you want to send: appreciation, frustration, things you want, or things you need from your partner, it doesn’t matter. Like the truck moving the cargo, a safe conversation will deliver the goods.

So what would a Safe Conversation look like in this case?

1) Use “I statements” rather than “you statements”

Instead of saying “you” and then criticizing Rob, Janet could start by using “I” statements to share two things: “what I saw or heard” and “what I felt”.

And then she add any other thoughts or feelings that come to mind.

“When I saw you eating donuts, I felt anxious. My mother had diabetes and died at an early age and I’m afraid of something happening to you.”

2) Watch the non-verbal messages you’re sending

Often, things like a sigh, a glare, or a rolling of the eyes communicate negativity.

It will be really helpful if Janet conveys a soft look in her eyes and speaks in a kind tone.

It’s the non-verbal gestures that actually do most of our communicating.

3) Regulate your own emotional reaction

When Janet speaks in this way, she is working to regulate her reaction and the fear that drives her criticism.

This gives Rob a chance to control his own reaction, and perhaps listen with curiosity.

So, when you’re talking, use I statements, watch your non-verbal messages, and regulate your reaction to what you’ve seen and heard.

These steps will help do a lot to make the conversation safe and thus easier for your partner to listen and connect with you.

The problem may not be that your partner is not listening well. The problem may be that you’re not communicating in a way that can be heard.

Talking without criticizing can help make it safe to talk about even the most difficult issues.

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2. Listening without judgment

What’s Rob’s part in this?

Rob stirred the pot by reacting with, “Stop telling me what to do! You’re always trying to control me!”

What if he were to regulate his own reaction for the moment?

You know Janet is really a decent person. What if Rob were to become curious about what feelings are driving her insensitive comment.

The three-part Safe Conversation model is designed to help you do that.

Here’s what it might look like:

Mirror

What if Rob simply mirrored back to Janet what she said?

Mirroring says to your partner, “You matter. What you have to say matters.”

Here’s what that might look like:

“Let me see if I got what you’re saying. You’re saying that when I ate that second donut, you felt anxious. Your mother had diabetes and died at an early age, and you’re afraid of something happening to me.”

Did I get it? (checking for accuracy)

Is there more about that? (curiosity)

Checking to get 100%, and then becoming curious about your partner has a powerful effect, making your partner feel like she or he matters.

The second step is…

Validate

Validation is when you say to your partner, “Although I may see things differently, you make sense.” And then you tell your partner what makes sense about what she or he just said.

“Janet, you make sense. It makes sense that because you experienced such a loss when your mother died, you’d naturally be anxious when you see me not being careful about my sugar intake. That makes sense.

“Does that give you the validation you need?” (always check to see)

Empathize

And finally, empathy is when you feel what your partner is feeling about the issue.

“And I can imagine that you’re feeling really scared. I’ve felt afraid when I thought of losing someone. And that feels really bad.”

Empathy enables you to be present with your partner in the midst of their fears. This enables you to connect emotionally, on a deeper, heart level. This will also bring a measure of healing to the wound that is driving your partner’s fear.

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3. Connecting beyond our differences

As Rob and Janet connect, their differences over diet may not change. But empathy will enable them to connect beyond their differences.

You say, well, what if I can’t accept the difference? What if it’s not just an addiction to sweets, but an addiction to say, alcohol.

Then it may be necessary to ask for a change in behavior. But in my experience Rob would be much more open to Janet’s request if they feel connected.

On the other hand, if they continued being defensive and feeling disconnected, the fight would go on and on and on. Right?

What about you?

You too can learn to communicate in a way that leads to closer connection with your partner.

How?

By talking without criticizing, listening without judging, and connecting beyond your differences.

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Don’t settle for an “OK” marriage”! Ask for what you need!

So many couples are staying together in an unhappy marriage. When you ask how they’re doing, they’ll say, “OK”.

That’s code for “I’ve settled”.

In more open and honest moments, they’ll admit, “We say we’re happily married, but actually most of our needs are being met outside our relationship.”

Or…

“Everyone thinks we’re doing fine, but we don’t really feel connected. He does his thing and I do mine. We’re like ships passing in the night.”

Can you relate? Would that describe your marriage?

Well join the crowd!

Experts tell us that up to 90% of couples who stay married report their relationship as “less than satisfactory”.

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Some of these couples make it to the end of their lives, surviving in this prison. Life sure didn’t turn out like they expected, but they felt hopeless to change it.

But other couples don’t survive. Their relationship eventually blows up and ends.

And it doesn’t have to be a big problem that blows it up. You’ll hear them blame it on things like, “We couldn’t agree on whether to squeeze the toothpaste from the top or the bottom of the tube.”

But here’s what actually happened:

Years of living with someone without feeling connected resulted in pain that became unbearable.

And they put off getting help until it was too late.

Dr. John Gottman said that the average time it takes for a person with a pain in their heart to call for help is four hours.

But the average time it takes for a person with a pain in their marriage to call for help is seven years!

So don’t wait!

You can break out of that place where you’re stuck by learning to ask for what you need!

Change happens when we make it safe enough for each other to turn our frustrations into desires expressed.

Then when my partner gives me what I ask for, it brings healing to me and closeness in our relationship.

But for my partner, it usually means they must be willing to grow into parts of themselves they never developed.

And that’s hard.

“Wait a minute Chuck! You said to ask for what I need? I’ve done that a thousand times and it didn’t work!”

Did you make it safe enough to ask for what you need? Or did you just ask?

Asking someone who is in a defensive mode always comes across as nagging. And you’re right! That never works!

But in a safe conversation, asking for what you want gives your partner a great opportunity to stand tall and be your hero!

And that’s when everything changes.

Just ask Mark and Sunny.

One day Mark made a request of Sunny.

It was something he really needed from her.

He was tired of them both being ships passing in the night. After years of marriage, he wanted to know this woman he lived with in a more personal way.

Turns out that request was not easy for Sunny. It required of her something she had never done. It required that she stretch and grow a part of herself that was lost growing up and never developed.

Watch their story then discuss it together with the questions below.

(This is a powerful video by one of my mentors, Nedra Fetterman. Watch it as she tells the story of her own parents, Mark and Sunny.)

Because of privacy settings, you’ll have to watch it on Vimeo. Click on the blue tab to watch, and then come back and discuss what you saw using the questions below.

Discuss with your partner…

1. In what ways is your relationship like Mark and Sunny’s before Mark made his request?

Here are some steps that have to be followed in order to make a request that deepens the connection in your relationship.

– Create Safety
– Connect
– Make a Request (small, specific, doable and positive)
– Be Courageous

2. Why is safety important?

3. Why should the goal of a request be “to connect” rather than to just make a change?

4. Why do you think this takes courage?

5. What would you like to ask from your partner right now? If the conversation feels safe, do it and then talk about it.

When you’ve finished, please take a moment to share your thoughts with everyone in the reply section below.

And…if you haven’t already…

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How being a good listener can radically improve your marriage

Talking is only one part of the communication process in marriage. Real communication happens when we listen too.

Duh? Really? I kind of knew that.

But did you know that in an average conversation one partner hears only 13% of what the other partner is saying?

We may be good at talking, but evidently we’re lousy at listening.

Here’s how being a good listener can radically improve your marriage.

Every time Lloyd would share his frustration with Fran, her reaction would shut down her ability to listen.

No doubt part of the problem was how Lloyd talked to her.

It’s not what you say but how you say it that matters.

Lloyd: “When I came home I felt like you practically threw the baby and me, and start barking orders. I know you’ve had a hard day, but you act as if I’ve done nothing all day. I work hard and I don’t deserve this when I get home.”

OK Lloyd, let’s back up and start over! No wonder your wife is not listening! You’ll never get anywhere saying it like that! Can you stop using accusatory “you” statements and talk about what “I” am experiencing in a way your partner can hear you?!

The first rule of “safe” communication is guess what?  SAFE! It has to be SAFE!

LLOYD (second try): “When I came home it seemed you were frustrated, and you told me to take the baby and the dog for a walk. When I heard that, I felt like I didn’t get a chance to take a breath from the stressful day I had.”

Even with Lloyd working at being a better SENDER of info, this usually turns into an argument with Fran.

FRAN: “You think YOU’VE had a stressful day! Come on! I’ve seen you at work. Making some calls, then having a leisurely lunch with your co-workers. Try being here with the kids all day! I wish I had an office to escape to!”

Come on Fran, these are fighting words and you know it. Use your skills now. Make it SAFE.

In order to have a safe and productive conversation, you have to have SENDER and RECEIVER responsibility.

But today is about listening…so what can a RECEIVER do to become a better listener?

Try these three steps.

marriage-communication-skills

1. Mirror your partner’s words.

Repeat back what you heard as close as possible to how it was said.

“OK Chuck, you keep talking about “mirroring”. That’s a counseling tool. This is real life where the pace of life makes your head spin. I can’t stop in the middle of everything to use this rigid therapeutic structure you’re talking about.”

I get that.

You don’t want to come off like you’re using some counseling technique in a normal conversation. But there’s good news.

You can still tap into the power of mirroring as a listening tool.

So, as your partner is talking, listen with the purpose of mirroring.

How do I do that?

After a few sentences, stop your partner and say something like…

If I get what you’re saying, you said…” and simply repeat what you heard.

Or, “What I hear you saying is…”

This will help you regulate your emotions AND give your partner a good feeling.

A feeling of being heard. A feeling of being valued. A feeling that his or her words matter.

Think about it. If the average partner hears only 13%, what will be the impact when you hear 100% of what you’re partner is saying

Mirroring can help you do that.

Your partner will feel safe and be able to access more of what they are really feeling and thinking.

FRAN: “Lloyd, what I hear you saying is that I seemed frustrated and told you to take the baby and dog for a walk. I heard you say, you’ve had a stressful day, and didn’t feel like you had a chance to catch your breath.”

That’s good Fran! Now go to step 2.

gratitude-in-marriage-6

2. Check your accuracy.

After you’ve mirrored your partner’s words, check for accuracy by saying something like, “Did I get it?” And then keep listening for any corrections or clarifications.

Then, mirror those additions back to your partner as well.

Continue to check your accuracy until your partner tells you, “You got it.”

marriage-communication

Then…

3. Turn on your curiosity.

Ask, “Is there more about that?”

That question will continue to make it safe for your partner to access more of what they are really feeling and thinking.

And for you, as a listener, it will turn on your curiosity like a switch turns on a light.

Curiosity is vital to being a good listener. Why? Because it empowers me to regulate my emotional reaction.

Listening breaks down when I start feeling reactive to something that is said. Something I think is not true. Something that is different from my reality. Something that is not according to the way I see things.

When that happens my auto-response is to stop listening and start “reloading” what I want to say in reaction. At that point I’m not listening to my partner. I’m listening to myself.

As human beings we have a fundamental, unconscious objection to difference. This objection to difference happens when we don’t feel connected. And it’s a paradox, because you can’t get to connection when you object to difference.

When I object  to difference, it produces polarization. And that shuts down my ability to listen.

Curiosity is what disrupts that objection to difference, allowing me to listen to everything my partner is saying.

Asking, “Is there more about that?”, does a number on my brain. I cannot be curious and object to difference at the same time. The brain pathways cannot run those two directions at once.

So now I’m in control, not my emotions!

Curiosity helps me hold my reality and my partner’s reality at the same time – to be able to see that we are different, and that it’s OK.

Let’s pick up where we left off with Fran…

FRAN: “Lloyd, what I hear you saying is that I seemed frustrated and told you to take the baby and dog for a walk. You said you’ve had a stressful day, and didn’t feel like you had a chance to catch your breath.”

“Is there more about that?”

LLOYD: “Yes, I guess I’m feeling like what I do doesn’t matter. That reminds me of how hard I worked to make straight A’s growing up, and even when I succeeded, it felt like it didn’t matter.”

Whoa! What’s happening here?

Lloyd realized that his upset was not just about Fran’s comment. It was related to the baggage of the past he was carrying.

Because Fran made it safe and really listened to Lloyd, he got in touch with his deeper issue.

They both realized that the conflict was about the deeper pain that Lloyd felt – that what he did didn’t matter.

This part of Lloyd’s world instantly became integrated into their relationship. And Fran grew in a new capacity and sensitivity to Lloyd.

The result? Transformation.

All because one partner decided to listen!

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How to break the cycle of blaming and defensiveness in your marriage

Is your marriage stuck in a vicious cycle of blaming and defensiveness? Here’s why that happens, and what to do about it.

Marriages get stuck in this kind of destructive cycle because of what we call “symbiosis”.

Symbiosis is living together as if you are one. It’s another way of saying “being dependent on one another”. But this kind of dependence goes way overboard and is not healthy.

In the romantic stage symbiosis is pleasurable, because I’m under the illusion that my partner and I are the same.

We think alike. We feel alike. We don’t need words to understand each other. We feel like we’ve truly found our soulmate.

But after the love chemicals wear off and the power struggle stage begins, symbiosis is painful.

Symbiosis is painful because I discover that my partner is an “other” person with their own needs, desires, hurts, experiences, and perspective.

blaming-defensiveness-2

That’s when I get stuck in my own self-absorption. So does my partner.

– I can only see my reality.
– I believe my reality is the only true description of reality.
– One of us is right and the other is wrong.
– “You and I are one, and I’m the one!”

Sound familiar?

Whenever I discover that my partner is different, my reality is challenged, and I can feel deeply betrayed.

That’s when the blaming and defensive cycle begins.

Here’s an example of symbiosis with two realities colliding.

SHE:“Make sure when you load the dishwasher you face the dishes inward, put all the silverware sorted in the tray, and don’t turn it on until it’s full so we don’t waste energy.”

HE:“You know it really doesn’t matter which way they are facing. They’ll get clean either way. And just put the silverware in there. We can sort it when we put it away. And really it doesn’t use that much energy.”

SHE:“You never listen to me!!”

HE : “You’re always telling me what to do!!”

Wow, Sandy and I have had that kind of exchange countless times! How about you?

So how do I break out of this cycle of blaming and defensiveness?

Differentiation is the process that helps us get unstuck.

Differentiation is when you begin to see and accept your partner as different, as an “other” person.

Differentiation is when you can hold your reality and your partner’s reality at the same time.

The Couple’s Dialogue is a powerful tool that can help a couple experience differentiation.

Here’s what it might look like in the example above.

HE: Mirrors and validates his partner’s desire to have the dishes face inward, the silverware sorted, and the dishwasher full before being used.

In that safe context where he has regulated his own reactions, he sees that her  perspective really does make sense. And he lets her know that he gets it.

SHE: Having her reality validated, she feels safe and is open to seeing his reality.

She mirrors and validates his view that the dishes will get clean facing inward or outward. That the silverware can be sorted just as easily after they’re clean. And that having a few empty spaces in the dishwasher is not a huge expense.

Although she sees it differently, his view makes sense to her.

In the process, she realizes that there is really no right or wrong way to do it – just different ways.

She lets him know she gets it.

HE and SHE: They both feel safe and validated. As a result they both are now are open to new ways of washing the dishes.

Neither are holding on to their view for dear life. Neither are driven to prove themselves right.

blaming-defensiveness-3

Differentiation dissolves the symbiosis and self-absorption.

And, bingo, the blaming and defensiveness stops!

Watch the video below as Genevieve and Mike demonstrate the Couples Dialogue. Notice what happens to Genevieve when she feels validated by Mike.

That’s how it’s done!

Let’s turn symbiosis and self-absorption into healthy differentiation and deeper connection…

…and stop the blaming and defensiveness!

Let me know if I can help. I’ve been doing lots of Skype calls with couples over the past few weeks. I’d love to help coach you if you need it. Click here to find out more.

Post your comments below in the comment section. Share your insights and questions. See you next week!

My goal is to provide free relationship resources delivered to your email inbox every Saturday morning! To receive my weekly blogpost just subscribe below.

How can I stop being so reactive in my marriage relationship?

Is your marriage relationship being sabotaged by outbursts of anger and overreaction?  Does your own reaction drive you to pull away from your partner, causing her or him to feel abandoned?

No marriage relationship can stay connected if one person is highly reactive.

Whenever emotions are out of control, the conversation will never be safe. And feeling connected will not be possible.

Here are three powerful insights that can help us regulate our emotions and help us stay present and connected with our partner.

controllling-reactivity-in-marriage

1. Our feelings drive our behavior.

Who me? No, never. Not me. I believe you should do what’s right regardless of feelings!

Riiiiight!

I used to be so naive.

But after a few decades of marriage, I discovered this was almost never the case.

Why? Because…

The feelings that drive our actions are almost always unconscious.

marriage-negative-reactions

Seems like negativity would always spew out of my mouth whenever my unconscious fear or anger was triggered. And the results were never good.

And this all happened without my even knowing it.

Before I could process anything in the thinking part of my brain (cortex), the critical retort was already out of my mouth and I was in trouble.

Can you relate?

Problem is the neurons triggered from our lower, reactive brain travel 10 time faster than those from the top down. That’s why it so difficult to not be reactive to your partner.

The moment that reaction occurs, the conversation is no longer safe. And the kind of dialogue that leads to connection is not possible.

Here’s how it usually goes down. I learned this from the book, Crucial Conversations.

controlling-reactivity-in-marriage

The example in the graph is a wife I previously shared about.

She grew up in a home where her father and brothers were engineers, and her mom and sister were nurses. She was the “artistic” one.

Although she was very talented, she always felt “dumb” growing up with all those math and science whizzes.

So now in her marriage,  just a “5-watt” eye-roll from her husband triggers a “1000 watt” reaction.

Ok. I get it. That makes sense. But how do I get control of my emotions and all this overreaction?

The key to controlling our emotions is learning where they come from.

There is something that happens lightening fast between the time we see or hear something and the feelings we create in response.

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We often say, “He made me mad.”  Or, “She upset me.”

The truth is no one can make you mad.

“What? What do you mean no one can make me mad? It happens all the time!”

No, actually, you make yourself mad.

Something happens between what you see and hear and the feeling you create.

“OK. I give up. What is that?”

2. Our “stories” drive our feelings.

The story we tell ourselves, or the meaning we attach to an event is what creates our feelings.

I see or hear something.
Then…I attach meaning to it. I tell a story about it. I interpret it. I judge what motives are behind it. I tell myself whether it’s good or bad, safe or dangerous.

And this all happens in a flash.

That’s what creates my feelings.

So I do create my own feelings after all…hmm.

controlling-reaction-in-marriage-3

The path to action we take begins with what we see and hear.
Then we tell a story about what we saw or heard.
That story then creates feelings.
And finally those feelings drive our behavior.

When we are in a reactive mode, that behavior takes one of two directions: clamming up or blowing up.

Both of these options destroy any chance of a healthy dialogue, and leave us feeling disconnected from each other.

Sandy says, “Do you have to take your phone whenever we go for a walk?”

What story do I tell? “She’s trying to control me.”

That story creates feelings of anger or fear.

Then like a hailstorm I react. Or like a turtle, I withdraw into the safety of my shell. Yes, I can be a hailstorm or a turtle.

Clamming up or blowing up never gets me what I really want. Only safe dialogue can keep us close and connected.

That’s because my reaction is only the beginning.  

My reaction triggers Sandy’s pain and defenses. If she responds in kind, the conflict is on.

How do I know so much? I’ve lived this scene over and over again. “Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse”.

But I’m learning that if I can catch my story, and hold it tentatively, I can change the feelings I create before there is a reaction and things go south.

Even if my story is true, even if Sandy IS trying to control me, I can confront the issue in a safe dialogue which brings us closer rather than blowing us apart.

Make sense?

In scientific terms, I have to give time for the neurons that move top down from my thinking brain to my reactive brain.

When I stay in my thinking brain, I can master my story and then tell it in a way that doesn’t trigger hurt and reaction.

So what’s the conclusion of all this?

negative-reactivity-in-marriage

3. If I change my story, I change my emotions, and thus my behavior.

So what does this look like?

Crucial Conversations gives some great sentence stems that help you turn your brain back on, and keep you curious and present rather than critical and reactive.

Here’s the one I used.

I looked at Sandy and asked myself, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person like Sandy say that?”

And, as I used this stem to keep my brain turned on, and to become curious about what Sandy was feeling, the answer came.

“Oh yeah, she just wants to spend some uninterrupted time with me. That makes sense. That’s why always being on my phone is a frustration to her. I get it.”

Change my story – change my feelings – bingo! Changed my behavior!

Even with the negative vibes I felt from Sandy’s frustration, this tool kept me from reacting and helped us stay in dialogue.

This is how we can turn a negative feeling into a positive interaction that leads us to deeper connection.

This is how to avoid  spiraling downward into a negative interaction.

And this is how we had a great walk, a great conversation, and ended up feeling closer to each other rather than hurt and angry.

If you change your story, you change your feelings.

Then you can respond in a way that gets you what you want. For yourself, for your partner, and for your relationship.

Try it and let me know how it goes in the reply section below!

My goal is to provide free relationship resources delivered to your email inbox every Saturday morning! To receive my weekly blogpost just subscribe below.