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Be a Better Communicator: Couples' skills

Relationships are extremely challenging.  Even people who love each other deeply will have challenges communicating sometimes.  Here is a list of barriers to help you see what may get in the way. These barriers may be in the pre-conscious states.  Realize you may need to reflect further on your thoughts and actions to identify your barriers. 

Barriers to Listening (not exhaustive):

Denial- "I am the victim.  I am not contributing to this problem."
Entitlement-   Making demands on the other, "You ought to treat me the way I expect you to."  "I expect you to fulfill my demands of special treatment."
Mistrust- "If I listen to you, you will take advantage of me."
Revenge- "I have every right to punish you because of the way you treated me."
Defensiveness- "I must argue and defend myself."

Barriers to self-expression (not exhaustive):

Conflict Phobia- adhere to the belief that "People with good relationships don't fight.  Conflict should be avoided.".
Emotophobia- "I shouldn't feel angry." The belief that anger is an unsafe emotion to have or express possibly due to imbalances in family of origin. 
Emotional Perfectionism- "I should always feel happy and loving. I should be in control of my emotions at all times."
Fear of rejection- "If I tell you how I feel, our relationship will fall apart and I will end up alone."
Passive aggression- "I will punish you with silence. I will get back at you indirectly (burn your toast, show up late, forget things important to you)."

The Problem with Matching:
Couples often will start an argument and fall into a trap called "Matching." One will raise his or her voice and the other will match it with an equally strong statement. The other raises his or her voice to defend their cause and the other will also raise their voice.  Both are saying a lot and neither is hearing what the other is saying.  Each walks away having convinced themselves they are right because they only heard their own side of the argument. 

In order to change this vicious cycle each needs to speak more calmly and listen to what their beloved is saying.  Listening and hearing your beloved doesn't mean you agree with them it just means you are trying to understand them.  If you are both trying to hear the other and let them share their feelings you are more likely to get at the root of the issue.  Most couples just want to feel understood.


Once you identify your barriers to self expression and listening it's time to learn how to be a better listener.  Dr. David Burns, MD calls his method EAR (copyright 1991/2006).

E= Empathy

In communication giving your spouse or friend a sense that you care about them comes through empathy.

1. Disarm- Find some truth in what the other is saying even if you don't completely agree with them.

2. Empathize- Try to see things from their eyes and not your own.  Reflect back what you hear they are   saying and what you think they are feeling. Give them a chance to clarify. 

For example, "I hear you saying that you think the sky is purple and that makes you feel happy."  Notice how you don't have to agree with the person to show them you heard them.  Refrain from sarcastic tone or rolling you eyes. 

3. Inquire-  Ask questions to demonstrate interest and to learn more about their perspective.

A= Assertiveness

4. I Feel Statements- Once you have spent the time needed hearing your beloved's thoughts and feelings respond with assertiveness (as opposed to aggressiveness or passivity).  If you use "You always" or "You never" statements you will put the other on the defensive and a fight will flair up again. 

"I feel _________________ when _________________." Is a good sentence structure to use.

Often couples have a small feeling vocabulary because they are so busy fighting over facts and details.  The true emotion behind what has happened gets lost. 

Basic feeling words are:  angry, sad, hurt, lonely, afraid, uncertain, frustrated, disappointed, upset, confused, happy, glad, good, proud, etc....

R= Respect

5. Stroking-  Take time to validate the other persons' feelings.  Treat them with respect and even when you feel frustrated or upset.  Try to say something positive about the other person.  For example, "I appreciate that you helped me out the other day." Or "Thank you for taking time out of what you were doing to help me." or, "I can see that you are working really hard at work, you must be really tired." or even "Thank you for listening to me!"

Make sure you take turns listening and sharing so both of you have been able to address the issue.  Healthy Relationships are not one sided. 

With these tools you will find that you can resolve your conflicts and learn to understand and appreciate each other. 

(Taken in part from David D. Burns Attitudes that Inhibit Intimacy, Therapists Toolkit, 1989/2006).

If you are interested in my seminar Foundations For Marriage.  Please contact me at if you would like me to present this seminar at your church or local library.  

by Gretchen Flores