This post is part of a 2-part collaboration with the wonderful Savannah Esposito. Please be sure to check out her blog, Millenial Mrs and Mom, and show her some love. I’ll be posting an interview that I did with her next Thursday (12/28) with more about relationships, communication, what projects she has coming up and where to find Savannah all over the internet. So, without further ado:
”You sound just like your mother!”
Anyone who has ever uttered this phrase or it’s male counterpart knows the whirlwind fight that typically immediately follows.
And as I type this, we’re in the midst of Hanukkah and headed for Christmas next week, these arguments can be all too familiar. What can I say, the holidays just bring out the best in people!
The number one reason that people come in to see me for relationship counseling is because of poor communication. That phrase “poor communication” covers all manner of sins that could mean a host of different things. Poor communication about finances, about sex and intimacy, parenting styles, family of origin…and on and on!
And during the holidays that can become magnified as couples try to navigate blending two sets of family traditions and expectations (not to mention visions of perfectly placed ornaments, gelt and the ever-watchful Elf on the Shelf). A simple conversation to determine, “What are your expectations this holiday season?” or “What is your vision for the holidays this year?” can avoid a lot of heartbreak and arguments.
As a therapist, I have training in Gottman Counseling. The Gottman Institute has done decades of research on marriages and families in their Love Lab in Seattle, WA. “The average couple waits six years before seeking help for relationship problems” and “half of all failed marriages end in the first seven years” (Zach Brittle, LMHC; W is For Wednesday). In my couples counseling, I’m fond of saying, “you can’t drive a car without an oil change. How do you expect to drive a marriage without one either?”
I’m going to unpack 2 core concepts for improving communication in your relationship and offer up 1 technique to help turn your relationship from a disaster couple into a master couple.
The 4 Horsemen
One of the main concepts found in Gottman Counseling are their 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These are four negative communication techniques that can signal the end of a relationship. Let me preface this by saying, all couples use these 4 things to some degree. No relationship is perfect or immune. But couples that use these negative communication styles more frequently are headed for the rocks. They are:
- Criticism – A critical attack of your partner. Typically involving exaggerated generalizations and judgments of their character. Ex. I can’t believe how selfish you are being. You never think of anyone but yourself!
- Contempt – “When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean – treating others with disrespect, mocking them with sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.” (Gottman.com). According to John Gottman, contempt is the single greatest indicator that a relationship is doomed.
- Defensiveness – This often gets paired with counter-criticism. In our fights we’ll often trade volley for volley of criticism, defensiveness and counter-criticism as things start to really heat up and head for a major argument. Ex. My fault?! How about the time you…
- Stonewalling – This occurs when one partner completely shuts down and withdraws from the other, either physically or verbally/emotionally. This is often done in an attempt to avoid a blow-up; however, it often has the opposite effect. As social beings we hate to be ignored and will force negative interaction rather than be shut out. So in actuality, shutting down almost guarantees the blow-up. Now there is something to be said for different processing speeds; but, that need must be communicated appropriately. You can’t call a time out in the middle of a football game telepathically. You have to tell the ref and get permission to take the time out first.
Knowing, recognizing and getting rid of these four techniques is a huge first step to turning your relationship around. I’ll explain in a future post what the antidote is to overcome the 4 Horsemen.
The 5 Love Languages
Dr. Gary Chapman, world-famous relationship expert, has become internationally known for his book The 5 Love Languages. This concept coupled with Gottman’s 4 Horsemen are a powerful 1-2 combo.
The basic concept is that there are 5 different ways that we can show and receive love. Typically, the way we show love is the way we prefer to receive it. The 5 languages are:
Quality Time – Giving another person our undivided attention.
Acts of Service – When a person shows their love by doing things for another person.
Words of Affirmation – This is when a person uses words of praise to build another person up.
Physical Affection – Appropriate touch can speak volumes, whether it is PDA or affection show in private.
Gifts – For people with this primary love language, giving and receiving gifts is often the most meaningful.
It is extremely important for you to know both your own love language as well as that of your partner or family members. You can take a free online quiz here to determine your primary love languages.
15 For 15
Rome wasn’t built in a day you know. And your relationship won’t be repaired in one either.
We’ve often had years (for some it’s generations) of negative communication patterns for our relationship to grow out of alignment.
The good news is that little changes are what turn the ship around!
If you have two people who are committed to changing those patterns, there is nothing they can’t overcome. Insert analogy of farm animals being trained and teamed together to accomplish more than they could individually.
My wife and I recently ran a 15 for 15 Challenge in which we committed to 15 straight days of taking 15 minutes a day without screens or distractions to connect with one another. Just the simple act of talking about your day, how life is going, and bringing up major stressors (beware the 4 Horsemen!) that are looming can have such a huge positive impact on your relationship.
And while it may seem like such a simple and insignificant answer to years of communication issues, it really does do wonders!
We’re planning to go through one again starting January 1st, 2018 as a way to start the year on the right foot. We’ll be live-streaming and posting on the Parenting & Family Solutions Facebook Page as a way to help other couples start and maintain focus during the 15 days. We offer up different questions as topics to possibly start with. We love to hear about people checking in and the success stories of couples and families reconnecting.
Here are a few questions (in addition to the two offered above about preparing for the holidays) to get the ball rolling:
- What are you most looking forward to in 2018?
- Name 1 thing you want to accomplish in 2018 (or the next 6 months)?
- What was the most unexpected surprise from 2017?
- Do you have any regrets from 2017?
- What would you like Valentine’s Day to look like?
The key with the 15 minutes and questions like these is to really pay attention to your partner! Give them your full attention and while they talk, you listen. Some have to start off taking notes on what their partner said. Don’t get defensive, don’t try to argue your position. Just connect with what your partner is thinking, feeling and saying. Then you switch and it’s your turn.
So that’s it! Just 225 minutes. Out of the 525,600 minutes in a year (.042% for the math bunch), that’s a pretty small sacrifice to make for changing the course of your relationship and ultimately your family tree.
Feel free to join us and see where it can take your relationship!
John Dennis is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Approved Clinical Supervisor with over 13 years of experience specializing in both relationship and family counseling for individuals, couples, children, and families. He co-owns Parenting & Family Solutions, a private outpatient counseling practice in the Harrisburg, PA area. He is trained in Gottman Counseling and writes a weekly mental health blog, On The Couch. He specializes in working with people who suffer from anxiety and confidence issues; relationship and communication struggles; trauma, grief and loss; and medical diagnoses such as cancer.