Question: My husband and I are so different…I ask him to do certain things differently that really bother me and he just disregards my polite requests. For example, not yelling in front of the kids, and being polite to the kids. I just don’t know how to make him think I’m really serious and take my requests seriously. Also, he gets upset when I spend time with my friends, he doesn’t even like that I HAVE friends. He doesn’t do anything with friends and resents me when I do. Can you help?”

Relationships, whether with wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends or even just friends,involve some of life’s greatest challenges. While there are several factors that contribute to the success of a marriage or long-term partnership, communication skills, or lack thereof, can either help or hinder the prospect of both parties being able to find a middle ground in disagreements.

Good communication and negotiation skills are the foundation of a strong marriage. Many problems can be solved by improving the way couples communicate with each other when they have conflicting ideas and values. It’s often the simplest bad habits that get couples into trouble. Once a marriage gets on a rough track, negativity grows. Problems escalate as both spouses repeat their mistakes again and again. Take a look at the following communication mistakes and learn how they can be resolved.

Decrease the competitive Attitude: If you find yourself building a “case” in the back of your mind with supporting bullet points for every disagreement, you may put your spouse on the defensive and both of you will end up feeling exhausted with little resolution. Let go of your attachment to being right, by recognizing the value of your partner’s perspective. When arguing, people have a tendency to focus on their point of view and become more polarized as things escalate. But, in most arguments, there’s common ground shared by both parties. Find this middle territory and talk about it in explicit terms.

Edit Criticism: When communicating with your partner, make a concerted effort to avoid personal criticism. This includes refraining from put-downs, insults and negative body language, such as eye-rolling.

Seek first to Understand vs. Being Understood: When in conflict, our default as human beings often is to focus on our desire to be understood. How many times have you heard, “you just don’t understand what I’m saying!” Of course, healthy relationships do involve understanding one another, but rather than emphasizing your own desire to be heard, try changing your focus to put-ting attention on understanding the other. This can really shift the relational dynamic and pave the way for more open and fresh communication. Let your partner know that you understand their point of view by validating them. If your spouse doesn’t have friends it may feel threatening to him when you spend time with friends. Really seek to understand what it is that upsets him. The resentment is probably covering a more primary feeling of hurt.

Use Active Listening Skills: Active listening is a technique designed to not only make it easier to converse about sensitive issues but also to actually deepen your understanding and appreciation of your partner. When practicing active listening, it is important for the speaker to remain focused on a single thought or point. For the listener, concentrating on sharing their partner’s perspective while attempting to discover new insights about how he or she thinks and feels can be of great benefit. No matter what topic is being discussed, the most important part of active listening is to do it with patience and love. Addressing how your partner feels rather than just reacting to what your partner says is necessary for effective communication.

Use “I” statements: Try to own your feelings, by using “I” statements when communicating (e.g., I feel, I need, I want). For example, “I feel very worried about our kids when they hear yelling going on in our home”. Notice the words “our kids” and the lack of using the language when they hear YOU yelling – which helps to avoid a blaming tone.

Make Physical Contact: When there is a conflict partners usually feel pretty disconnected from each other, which can feed the cycle of negativity. Reach out to your significant other with respectful physical gestures, like holding their hand or putting an arm around their shoulder. This can quickly change the relational dynamic to one that is more loving and less adversarial, by increasing the sense of connection and safety.

Share Appreciations: Finally, in any good relationship, each person will feel that they are valued and respected for who they are – even if they are very different from each other. When communicating, it can be helpful to identify what you appreciate about the other and state those things. Research indicates that those in successful relationships make 5 times as many positive statements as negative ones when discussing problems.

In general, when communicating with your spouse, try to both listen and speak in a non-defensive manner. Keep in mind that anger is considered a secondary emotion; it’s usually fueled by the more primary emotions related to grief (a sense of loss/sadness), hurt, and fear. Granted, anger can be justified, but when you or your spouse are feeling this way, it can be helpful to look at the broader emotional landscape. By addressing the underlying fear or sense of loss, anger can be greatly diminished. Brief couples therapy that teaches both partners these skills can quickly improve the emotional interactions so that both parties are more willing to negotiate their positions and find that middle ground.

By Susan Mitchell, LCSW, Clinical Director for Ascendant Behavioral Health Clinics

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Susan Mitchell

Susan Mitchell is a licensed clinical social worker and is clinical director at Ascendant Behavioral Health, located in Lehi. She can be reached at smitchell@ascendantclinics.com or 801-502-3913.