The Art of Relating

Christine Kniffen, MSW, LCSW

Good Couples Work: Checking Your Own Relationship

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Do you know what all that pain, angst and resentment is really about between couples? It revolves around three important factors. It is the absence of listening, the presence of reactive behavior and the vacancy of empathy towards our loved one who is desperately trying to be heard. This pain, by the way, is equally being felt by both parties. However, neither person in the couple usually feels this way, instead each is convinced that the other person is the genesis of the problem. I can assure you that when the communication has broken down, each person feels equally invalidated, hurt and lonely, longing for that connection in the relationship. The arguing has nothing to do with who does more of the chores, who feels more anxiety when things aren’t done to standard or who appears to be more invested in the relationship. Instead, what everyone wants to know is “Do you see me?” and “Are you going to be here with me?”

I have written extensively about communication. There are two parts to this process. One half of the equation has to do with the delivery and the other has to do with the reception. The reactive behavior I refer to above has to do with problems receiving the information. Reactive behavior isn’t just about becoming defensive or yelling at the person trying to talk to you. Reactive behavior also has everything to do with disengagement, silence, shutting down and going away. Reactive behaviors destroy the bridge of intimacy between you and your partner. If you want to create a healthy, loving relationship, you have got to break free of the automatic reactions that are unconsciously running your life.

How many of these reactive behaviors do you recognize in yourself?

  • Blaming a disagreement on your partner.
  • Becoming angry and raising your voice.
  • Attempting to dominate your partner.
  • Disengaging or withdrawing from your partner.
  • Staying silent or turning away.
  • Resentful compliance. Or, whining, nagging and bullying.
  • Denying there is a problem.
  • Becoming confused and overwhelmed.

So, as stated above you now understand that you will always imply that you are not listening by engaging in reactionary behaviors. More importantly, each of your behaviors drives the other’s behavior and a vicious cyclical pattern develops, seemingly trapping you in a never-ending quarrel. So, you need to first identify your personal reactionary behaviors and try to catch yourself when they unconsciously appear. Instead, attempt to sit quietly and hear what the other person is saying. Further, think about the emotion that is behind the statements. As therapists, we are taught to always try to get the primary emotion. When someone is upset, these usually are one of three primary emotions: Sadness, Fear or Anger. Yes, your partner’s delivery may be horrible and this can be worked on. But, what is behind what they are saying? Learn to read between the lines and help them to get more in touch with their feelings versus “emotional ranting”. Begin to offer empathy to their upset primary emotion instead. Also, it is important to remember that behind every primary emotion is a need. I always say to couples, “Instead of telling me what’s wrong with them, tell me what you need”. Are you afraid and do you need reassurance? Are you angry because you don’t feel a priority, really equating to sadness, and do you need your partner to show you that you matter in a way that resonates with you?

This is the work of couples. We must feel connected to feel loved. We must learn to communicate better if we are to feel connected. It is our job to become better communicators both on the delivery side and the reception side of this process. Don’t dig in your heels out of a stubborn reaction. Someone has to start the change. Do what you can to improve your delivery and reception and often the tension will noticeably begin to melt away. However, many others are simply too entrenched in negative, reactive communication patterns and need a little help and guidance from a therapist to break these patterns. If you feel that your relationship is stuck, then seek the professional help you need to end this cycle of destruction.

Christine Kniffen, LCSW is a Therapist and Relationship Coach in private practice. For a free consultation call 314-374-8396.