NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Learn to Communicate More Effectively in Your Relationship

In my prior articles,  The Importance of Active Listening and Are You Having Problems Communicating in Your Relationship?, I outlined some of the communication problems that couples often have in their relationship and the mistakes that they make that get in the way of effective communication.

As I mentioned in a prior article, it's a good idea, before criticizing your spouse, to take a look at your style of communication first to see if you're making some of the most common communication mistakes, which I outlined in that article.

Communicating Effectively in Your Relationship

In order to clarify the issues that I discussed in my prior articles, I'll give a fictionalized scenario, which is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information changed (to protect confidentiality).  This fictionalized scenario includes some of the common communication problems that couples have:

Sharon and Bill
Sharon and Bill came to couples counseling because, after five years of marriage, they were considering separating due to their frequent arguments.  When they weren't arguing, they often ignored each other and just coexisted in the same household.

Communicating Effectively in Your Relationship

Sharon's complaint was that she felt that Bill didn't listen to her.  Bill responded that Sharon was too critical and she tended to bring up old problems that he felt they had already resolved, and this made him feel overwhelmed.

Sharon countered that she wouldn't feel it was necessary to keep bringing up old issues if the current issues didn't feel so much like the old issues.

After several minutes of each of them pointing their fingers at each other, I reminded them of one of the ground rules that we discussed at the beginning of the couples counseling session, which was that each of them would speak from his or her own experience rather than making accusations.

Communicating Effectively in Your Relationship

After they each took deep breaths to calm down, I asked them to try an exercise:

Each one of them would take a turn in speaking from his or her own experience, without accusations.

The role of the person who was speaking was to get to the point without a long monologue and with as much compassion and empathy as he or she could muster for the other person and without accusations.   He or she had to communicate in a respectful way without using generalizations or speaking in a demeaning or manipulative way.

The role of the person listening was to listen actively--without interrupting.  As I mentioned in a prior article, active listening is an important skill that many people in relationships need to learn.

Active listening involves really hearing what the other person says and empathizing with the other person's point of view even if you don't agree with it.

In other words, you place yourself in the other person's shoes, if only for a few minutes, to try to understand the other person.  You focus completely on the other person. You're not waiting impatiently for the other person to stop talking so you can respond back.

Both roles, the role of the one speaking and the role of the one listening, can be challenging, especially if you and your spouse are stuck in certain negative communication habits.  But I think the role of listening actively is the most challenging because it's hard to put aside your own feelings sometimes, even for a moment, to consider your spouse's point of view, especially during a heated conversation.

Like many couples, Bill and Sharon had difficulty with this exercise and they needed a lot of practice.  Both of them felt frustrated and annoyed, and we needed to stop to help them focus on what the purpose of their seeking couples counseling was all about.

Was it more important to "win" the conversation by out talking or out maneuvering or was it more important to improve their relationship?

When each of them calmed down, they agreed that they wanted to improve their relationship because they each feared that it wouldn't last if it kept spiraling down the way that it had been.

I asked them to take turns at home practicing the exercise they learned in their couples counseling session.  I also asked each of them to keep a journal of their experiences in counseling and at home.

I also met with each of them individually for a session to find out if there was anything brewing under the surface that either of them were hesitant to talk about in the couples sessions.  

In addition, I used the individual sessions to get each of their family histories to see if there were any old family patterns that were repeating themselves in their relationship.

Fortunately, there weren't any issues that either of them wouldn't talk about in the couple sessions.  However, both Bill and Sharon were repeating patterns, without even realizing it, that their parents engaged in.

When we talked about the reoccurring patterns from one generation to the next, it was an eye-opening experience for both Sharon and Bill.  They were each both surprised and dismayed that they were repeating patterns that they disliked in each of their parents' marriages.

Of course, this is very common, but once people become aware of the patterns that they're repeating, they have an opportunity to change them (see my article:  Discovering that You've Developed the Same Traits that You Disliked in Your Parents).

There was no magic bullet for Bill and Sharon, but they made a commitment to change, they came regularly and they used the tools that they learned in couples counseling to improve their relationship.

Communicating Effectively in Your Relationship

Over time, they improved their communication and recommitted themselves to their relationship.

Changing Patterns in a Relationship is Challenging
Change can be challenging.

Change can be especially challenging if patterns in a relationship have become ingrained and they are part of a dynamic that is intergenerational.

When intergenerational patterns are involved in a relationship, not only is the couple in the room with the therapist but, figuratively speaking, their parents and, maybe, even their grandparents and great grandparents are "standing in the room" right behind them.

Being in an intimate relationship often brings up core issues in a way that usually doesn't happen with other relationships that aren't as close, which is another challenge.

Making changes in a relationship requires a commitment from each person to look at his or her own dynamic and a willingness to stick with couples counseling to improve their relationship.

Getting Help in Couples Counseling
Longstanding communication problems in a relationship don't get solved in a few sessions.  It takes time, patience and a lot of self compassion as well as compassion for your spouse to work through ingrained problems.

Unfortunately, too many couples wait until it's too late to get help.  By the time they come to couples counseling, there's been too much damage to their relationship and one or both of them wants out.

The chance for success in couples counseling is greater if the couple comes to counseling sooner rather than later.

If you and your spouse want to make changes in your relationship, you could benefit from seeing a licensed mental health professional who has experience working with couples and who can help to facilitate positive change.

Don't wait until your problems become irreconcilable.  Get help from a couples therapist who can help you to have a happier, more meaningful relationship.

About Me
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 website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.