Communication In Intimate Relationships

How we communicate within our intimate relationships can contribute to our overall happiness. It is not only important to listen to one’s partner it is also important to develop speaking skills that increase connection and lower the negative impact of disagreements. Below are the key aspects of speaking and listening as suggested in the book, Cognitive Behavioural Couples Therapy by Michael Worrell.

For the speaker.

Speaking subjectively.

Communication In Intimate Relationships

The speaker is encouraged to discuss their experiences of the issue in terms of the subjective meaning and emotions that are involved for them. It is important to emphasise that these conversations are not intended to be about establishing ‘the truth’ about what happened or what is really the case.

Including emotions.

A common pattern is for the individuals to communicate only their thoughts or memories about an issue and to avoid disclosing their emotions about the issue. If an individual has difficulty in this area, coaching may be required to assist the speaker to appropriately express their key emotions related to an issue. 

Including the partner.

As a key function of conversations is to facilitate intimacy and connection. The speaker is encouraged to include their feelings about and towards their partner in relation to the issue being addressed.

Maintaining balance.

The speaker, who may often be addressing negative events and emotions, is encouraged to also access and include positive emotions they may have towards their partner in what they say. Thus a partner who is angry regarding a forgotten anniversary is also asked to get in touch with and express ‘softer’ emotions of wanting to feel valued. 

Appropriate specificity.

In order to avoid overloading the listener with overgeneralised concerns and feelings, the speaker is encouraged to identify and describe their specific emotions and thoughts related to a specific issue.

Speaking in paragraphs.

In an effort to increase the likelihood that the listener will be able to take in the communication. The speaker is encouraged to speak in paragraphs rather than presenting a ‘novel’ so as to allow the listener to deal with one main idea at a time.

Using tact and timing.

It is important that the speaker does not just ‘dump’ on their partner. The task is to find a way of expressing a concern in a manner in which the listener is likely to be able to hear. This may include reflecting upon the best timing and context for holding the conversation. This minimises the possibility of the listener becoming defensive or not be in a position to listen due to being a very late at night or at or at a time when they are dealing with competing demands such as children.

For the listener.

Whilst the speaker is talking, to demonstrate understanding and acceptance of what is being said through tone of voice, facial expressions, and other gestures. The key points that may require repeated emphasis is that this acceptance does not equate to agreement.  It is important that a couple understands that it is possible to accept what a partner is saying whilst at the same time maintaining quite a different view of things. Partners are being asked to validate each other’s point of view and experience and also express areas where they differ.

Whilst the speaker is talking, to attempt to put themselves in the speaker’s place. That is, rather than listening primarily from their own point of view, to attempt to tune into the speaker and gain a good sense of what the experience of concern is like from their perspective.

Once the speaker has finished, to attempt to ‘give back’ what has been heard in terms of a statement or paragraph that captures the speaker’s most central emotions, thoughts, dilemmas, and concerns. This should be a simple ‘parroting’ of what has been said.

In order for the above to be possible, this role also requires the listener to avoid the following.

Interrupting frequently with questions or alternative perspectives or solutions.

Statements that are more of an interpretation of what the listener thinks the speaker really means.

Statements that express a judgment or rejection of what the speaker has said.

Christopher Swane - Relationship Counselling and Psychotherapy - Wellington