727-344-9867 | Contact/Email Us
In this blog, I will discuss two of the most common communication issues that I have seen couples struggle with, as well as how to approach such problems should you notice them occurring in your own relationship.
First, there is the issue that preeminent couples researcher and therapist, John Gottman, refers to as “harsh start-ups.” A harsh start-up entails starting a communication to your partner with criticism or an attack. Below is an example:
Harsh start-up: I’m so sick of you talking over me. For once, can you just listen!”
The speaker of the above statement may have justifiable cause for such frustration with their partner, however, using such a harsh start-up will likely put their partner on the defensive and likely not lead to any change. The content of the above message can be shared more effectively with a gentle start-up.
Gentle start-up: I’m feeling like I am not being heard here. Please let me share this with you without interrupting.
To avoid harsh start-ups, some rules-of-thumb are to start communication with “I” instead of “You,” don’t use superlatives like always and never, to state what the issue is without blame or judgment and to politely ask for what you would like to be different.
Gentle start-up: I seem to be cleaning the kitchen most days and am feeling frustrated. We agreed to alternate weeks and I would like for you to be mindful of when it is your week, please.
Another prevalent issue for married couples or those in committed relationships is trying to have important conversations when emotions are very high. It’s hard to communicate when you are emotional about something. Gottman uses the term “flooding” to describe being emotionally overwhelmed, and of being hijacked by our emotions to the point where cognitive processing is quite limited.
Flooding stems from an innate defense mechanism, the sympathetic nervous system response, popularly known as “fight or flight.” When the fight/flight response is triggered by a perceived attack, such as a partner using a harsh start-up with us, the thinking brain is relegated to the background, limiting our ability for clear thought. When a person is flooded due to the flight/flight response, a constructive conversation can be nearly impossible.
The old adage that we “never go to bed angry,” while stemming from sound advice that couples not let issues go undiscussed, unfortunately, leads couples to believe that delaying conversations is detrimental when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. It is far better to wait for flooding and the flight/flight response to subside before trying to tackle difficult conversations with your partner. You will find that you are more clear-headed, to stay calm, and to express yourself more gently, compassionately, and effectively.
How do you know when you may be experiencing flooding?
Feeling flushed (your face/head feels hot)
Feeling your heartbeat pounding in your chest
Tingling sensation in your fingers and toes
Feelings of anger or rage
Feeling like your stomach is in knots
The best guidance for couples is to take time-outs when flooding happens. And because flooding can so limit rational thought, I encourage couples to adopt an agreed upon code word to use when one or both partners have recognized that flooding has occurred and a break is needed. The code word can simply be “time out” or “code red.”
When a couple adopts a code word, they have agreed that they will give each other space in which to recover from the fight/flight response. Using time-outs does NOT mean issues go unaddressed, but rather they are addressed at times when both partners can be most effective.
During time-outs, each partner is expected to calm and center themselves, which may mean sleeping on it.
Dr. Jennifer Self holds a doctorate in couples and marriage therapy and is also a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. She is passionate about providing mental health counseling and couples therapy for over 15 years now. She sees adult clients (college-age) and up for couples therapy and welcomes all types of couples, including married, partnered, LGBTQ, and polyamorous. Dr. Jenn also enjoys treating anxiety disorders, depression, and gender identity issues. If you are looking for a couple’s therapist, give us a call to see if you and your partner are a good fit for therapy, 727-344-9867!