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Monday, July 29, 2013

Overcoming a Communication Stalemate in Your Relationship

When couples come to see me in my psychotherapy private practice in NYC, one of the major complaints I hear is that they often get into communication stalemates with each other.  Many of them have problems understanding the needs of their spouses, which leads to these communication stalemate.  The problem often involves misunderstandings about the need for providing emotional support vs the need for giving solutions to problems.

Overcoming Communication Stalemate in Your Relationship

Let's look at a typical scenario which, in this case, is a composite of the dynamics in many relationships where the two people have difficulty communicating with each other because there is a misunderstanding about what the person with the problem needs from the spouse:

Jean and Bill:
When Jean and Bill came for couples counseling, they both felt frustrated with their inability to communicate with each other.

When they came for couples counseling, they were in their mid-30s, married for three years, and they didn't have children.

Bill worked as a financial consultant from home, and Jean was a senior manager at a large bank.  They both worked long hours, and they both enjoyed their work, even though there were challenges at times.

Usually, at the end of a long day, they would have a late dinner together at home and talk about their day.  At the point when they came to see me, Jean was having a difficult time with one of her colleagues who tended to undermine Jean at senior managers meetings.

When she came home, Jean felt tense and frustrated by this ongoing problem.  But what made her feel even more frustrated was that Bill had a hard time understanding that when she talked to him about this issue, she just wanted his emotional support--not a solution to the problem.  And, even though she had told him this several times, Bill seemed to have difficulty understanding this.

Jean:  "Instead of listening to me and trying to empathize with what I'm going through, he cuts me off by giving possible solutions to the problem.  But I'm not looking for him to 'fix' the problem for me. I just want to be able to vent and feel that he cares about me and he's on my side before we come up with solutions.  I'm not feeling that.  I feel like Bill just wants to jump ahead to problem solving."

Bill:   "I just don't get it.  What's wrong with problem solving and offering possible solutions?  Isn't it better to find a solution to resolve this problem?  And how is it that you don't know I care about you?"

At that point, Bill and Jean were sitting far apart from each other on my couch, both of them glaring at one another. It was obvious that they had been down this road many times before and had come to the same impasse each time.

A Common Communication Problem in Relationships:  Seeking Emotional Support vs Looking For an Immediate Solution
This is a common communication problem in many relationships, and part of the problem is that, generally speaking, men and women often approach problems differently.  It's not a matter of one way being better than another.

Typically speaking, whereas men usually like to get to the solution of a problem quickly, women usually prefer to process their feelings about it first before coming to a solution.  Just like anything else, there are, of course, exceptions to this dynamic between men and women.  Often, depending upon the problem, women usually prefer to come to solutions to problems between people by talking it out, but many men find this frustrating.  They're usually more focused on fixing the problem right away without processing it.

In this case, Bill and Jean were having a hard time understanding where the other one was coming from.  Bill didn't understand that Jean wanted him to be there for her, actively listening to what she said, expressing that he understood how difficult this situation was for Jean and that he loved her.  Instead, he jumped ahead to the practical issue of trying to "fix" the problem.  He wasn't really understanding what she needed from him.  Then, Jean would get very angry and refuse to talk about it.

Jean wasn't communicating in a way that was clear to Bill about what she needed.  Rather than saying, "I just want you to listen to me right now and I want you to show me that you care without jumping to a solution," she would become angry and lose her temper with him.  Her knee-jerk reaction compounded the problem.

As a couples counselor, I helped each of them to step back and look at their situation from the perspective of the other person.  This was challenging for both of them because they had each become so dug in from their own perspectives.

But as we continued to work together and they practiced active listening and being clearer about each of their needs in our couples sessions and at home, they improved their communication, tensions eased, and they became closer.

Jean learned to tell Bill at the beginning of the conversation that she wasn't looking for a solution just yet--she just wanted to vent.  And Bill learned to put himself in Jean's shoes and express love and support.  He also came to realize that talking it out actually helped Jean to come to a better solution than just looking for a solution without going through the process of their discussion.

Overcoming a Communication Stalemate in Your Relationship

Jean also learned that, every so often, Bill would slip up and jump in with a solution.  Rather than losing her temper, Jean learned to be more patient and to understand that Bill was coming from a loving place, and he just needed to be reminded that she just wanted him to listen and express emotional support.

They also learned to limit these discussions to no more than 30 minutes so it didn't take over the rest of the evening, and they could focus on reconnecting with each at the end of the day.

Getting Help
Although, as I've said, this is a common communication problem in relationships, couples often have a hard time resolving it on their own, especially if the problem has been going on for a while and hurt feelings and resentment have been building up over time.

A skilled and objective couples counselor can help a couple out of their communication stalemate,

If you and your spouse find yourself  stuck in a communication stalemate, don't keep doing the same things that hasn't been working for you.  Rather than continuing in your stalemate, you could benefit from seeing a licensed mental health professional who has experience helping couples to overcome this problem so you can have a happier relationship.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individuals and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my web site:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me:

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