How do you start a difficult conversation with your spouse?
This is perhaps one of the most common questions I get as a couple’s counselor. There is more than one way to achieve a positive outcome. Having been in private practice for 42 years and having earned more than half dozen certifications in marriage and family therapy, here are some of the approaches that have proven to be quite successful.
How how do men and women communicate differently?
To begin with, every woman must recognize that a man can never be like a woman. In My Fair Lady, Henry Higgens laments about the same issue asking, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” The answer is simple: because their brains are wired differently. We can’t expect a cat to bark or dog to meow. If you want an animal to bark when someone comes to your door, don’t buy a cat! You will be disappointed and frustrated!
From time immemorial, women have always been the keepers of the hearth and the chatterers. Men have been the warriors and the hunters. Our brains are wired differently. Where women need to “work it through”, men have an economy of words. It’s much easier for women to express their feelings and engage in discussion, while men just want the bottom line. One of the most illustrative examples of why a man can’t be more like a woman is Mark Gungor’s The Tale of Two Brains. In his comedic video, Gunger demonstrates the biological differences between the sexes. He employs two sculptures of the male and female brains set upon a pillar on opposite sides of the stage. As he walks back and forth between these two brains, he describes the differences to the audience. Filled with humor, and candor, the audience learns these biological distinctions as they relate them to their own relationships. Everyone in the audience bursts into laughter as they resonate with his presentation.
In my book, I HATE THE MAN I LOVE: A Conscious Relationship is Your key to Success, that will be available in an e-book and soft cover soon, I also illustrate this discussion in my first chapter. Once a woman comes to terms with this fact, she can learn the best ways to approach her guy to get the results she desires.
Effective Communication Model
Here are several approaches that are viable and produce the desired outcome.
Timing is everything in life! It is very important to choose a time when your man is relaxed and able to hear your voice. Try to stay away from the times he has just returned from a hard day’s work, grouchy and unable to be present. Presencing is essential if you want his attention.
- Choice of words and presentation
This takes mindfulness. It’s not easy, but necessary. It takes patience and considering the outcome goal you want to achieve. If you hit him with “We need to talk about last night. You came home late, wasted and smelling like a polecat!” as soon as he comes through the door, that won’t ever work! Contempt, judgment, and criticism are sure ways to invite a fight. He will become defensive by using the same behaviors you used or stonewall you. These stress styles are what John Gottman calls THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCOLYPSE. They are counter-productive and usually the enemy of any relationship.
- Effective communication
One of the best ways to have a dialogue is using “I” messages as opposed to “you” messages. As soon as you begin a sentence with “you”, you are doomed! That’s another invitation for a fight. The Change Model that I teach my couples, is a viable approach that works not just in personal relationships but is also very effective with anyone you want to understand your side of the story. It has five parts that highlight your perception, feelings, interpretations, needs and contract for change. It too requires presencing to be successful. After you have been thoughtful of timing and your choice of words, the model looks like this:
Perception: We perceive by what we see and hear.
“When I heard you come in late last night…
Feelings: I felt very upset, concerned and anxious.Interpretation: I thought that you might have had too much to drink and perhaps involved in an accident. I get concerned that you might be unsafe to drive home.
Needs: I need you to be more considerate of my feelings and concerns when you stay out so late. I can’t relax and sleep is out of the question.Contract: Can we agree that if you are going to stay out late, that I get a call from you, so I don’t worry? I would feel better and be able to get some rest.
That’s a whole lot different that: “You are an idiot! You don’t give a damn about my feelings? You came home late, wasted and smelled like a polecat! What the hell is the matter you?”
I can guarantee you won’t like his response!
Lori and Morris Gordon created PAIRS, practical applications of intimate relationship skills. One of the most successful models for getting the outcome you desire is their “Dialogue Wheel.” It is not too different than the change model but has its own specific agenda. It is a guide for non-defensive communication that lets your partner know how you have reacted to their behavior without blaming.
PAIRS Dialogue Wheel
- Data: What I experienced.
Describe simply what happened. Stay in the present. No interpretation. (Not unlike the perception in the Change Model)
- Judgements: What I made up about it is… (self-responsible statements)
State your own interpretation about what happened.
(They identify this as judgments. I prefer to use interpretation. It’s just semantics.)
- Feelings: How I feel about it is…
Describe the emotions you felt during the experience.
Own your feelings. No one “makes you” feel anything.
- Wants: What I would like is… (for me, for you, for our relationship)
Describe what you want, be specific, what would help you feel better
right now. (I call it needs.)
- Intention: I will… (make a request, promise, offer, declaration, apology…)
Describe what you are willing to do to change the situation, strengthen the relationship, and get more connected. (I call this the contract.) The words are not important in making distinctions. The objective is all that matters.
The one I use mostly with my couples is Hedy Schleifer’s work, The Three Invisible Connectors, based on the work of Harville Hendrix, Imago Therapy and Martin Buber, The I, Thou Theory. Hedy had been an Imago therapist. She took the theory to another level using her own interpretations and concepts. Both modalities are highly regarded and excellent sources of change and personal growth.
What are the Three Invisible Connectors?
- The Relational Space:
Schleifer describes the relational space as the place in which your relationship lives. It does not live in you or your husband. It lives in the space between you. It is also the playground for your children. If that space has become polluted over time, it creates a dis-connect. Everyone suffers, including the pets. We are wired for connection and when we dis-connect, we go into crisis.
- Crossing the Bridge
When you cross the bridge to your partner’s world you can discover his essence. The same is true when he crosses the bridge to your world. It reveals the authenticity of both of you. One is a host, the other a visitor. As a visitor, you are required to leave your ideas, opinions, views, sentiments, pre-suppositions and thoughts on your side, and cross the bridge only with a passport. I, the therapist, am also the customs agent. When I hear a phrase or thought that might be an “illegal import”, I request that the visitor bring it back to his/her neighborhood. When you are the host, you choose a neighborhood in your world that you want your husband to learn about. You choose one word that describes that neighborhood. For example: lonely, anger, abandonment, fear, etc. It is whatever you want him to learn about so he can discover your world, your language and the landscape of your face. Think about the last time you looked into each other’s eyes. The eyes are the windows to the soul. Gazing with each other through soft eyes is being present for one another. This cannot begin without the art of presencing, the introduction to the process. It takes time to learn. I spend at least 15 minutes teaching the art of precencing to my couples. I have a few chapters in my book that allows the reader to be a fly on the wall as if they were an observer in the process. It would be impossible to explain the entire process in this article. I shared only the highlights.It takes a bit of training to teach couples this technique, but the results are transformational.
- The Encounter
When you land in the neighborhood/world of your partner it is called a visit. It is not a dialogue. It has very specific language. The encounter is the meeting of two essences. It is a “soul” connection. Only one person speaks at a time with an economy of words. An example would sound like this:Host: “I would like to invite you to cross over the bridge to my neighborhood called fear.”
Visitor: “Thank you for inviting me.” The visitor takes a moment to imagine leaving his world and crossing over a bridge to her neighborhood. When he has arrived, he simple says,” I am here.”
Host: “I become fearful when you shout at me. You scare me.”
Visitor: “What I heard you say, is that you become fearful when I shout at you. I scare you. Am I with you?”
Visitor: “Tell me more”.
They continue. She says a few more words related to her fear and he repeats, then once more says, “Tell me more” and so on.
Conflict Resolution Through Communication
Obviously, there is much more to this process than I can write in an article, but at least it gives you a glimpse of how it goes. There is no dialogue, only specific, sensory based data. I, the therapist am a very integral part of this process. I can stop and pause in the middle if either of the partners slip. I can request each of them to repeat in-case the other did not hear correctly, and I can explore, explain and interpret if necessary, helping them to gain the insight and clarity needed.
Basically, the language is soft and gentle. The eyes must be warm and constant on each other during the entire process. The intention is to be open, loving and genuine. There must be a great big fat YES from each partner for this to work. It won’t without it. Once the couple learns the process, they no longer need the therapist. Their takeaway is to integrate it in their communication at home whenever there is a need for conflict resolution. Each partner is responsible for engaging this process when they feel it is necessary. It includes Inner Child Work so that each partner understands the etiology of their partner’s behaviors that has been brought into the relationship from their childhood and family of origin.
Remember what you learned in kindergarten. “Do unto others what you would have other do unto you.” Use appreciative inquiry instead of finding fault. See the best in each other as you did when you were under the alter, chuppah, or on your knees as you took your wedding vows. It can all be restored. Communication is the key to understanding.
In his book, SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE, Stephen Covey says there is a space between stimuli and response. It’s called THINK! Think before you act. Be mindful of what your outcome goal is. Prepare your words with thought and consideration. You both came from different family systems. It’s your responsibility to learn to negotiate the differences. Think about the role models you had as kids. It most likely was dysfunctional to a greater or lesser extent, not by intention, but because of their own histories. That’s why there is no blame game here.
There is always a way to reach the heart and soul of each other. I gave very good techniques that you can apply to your relationships. Remember the adage, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar!”, one of my father’s favorite platitudes!
Joan E Childs, LCSW is a renowned psychotherapist, inspirational speaker and author of I HATE THE MAN I LOVE: A Conscious Relationship is Your Key to Success to be released October 11, 2020. To learn more about how Encounter-Centered Couple Therapy can renew and restore your relationship, contact Joan