March 9, 2023

Webinar: Couples Communication: Effective Strategies for Connection

Written by Rachel Eddins

During times of stress, do you and your partner say things that invalidate and/or disrespect each other?

Do you say things you later regret?

In this webinar, we will explore strategies designed to neutralize negative judgments as well as identify how each member of the couple can facilitate conversations that validate and demonstrate respect even in times of stress.

We will use Gottman Method and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) style exercises.

This webinar is facilitated by Jennifer Oates, a therapist in our Montrose location, is a Practicum Student supervised by Diana Cabrera-Stewart.

Watch a replay of the presentation here.

 

Learn more about couples therapy and relationship counseling services.

Here is a transcript of the webinar:

Hello! My name is Jennifer Oates, and this presentation is titled “Couples Communication: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil”. 

This is a recording from the presentation on March 9, 2023.

To respect the privacy of the group participants who (honestly and vulnerable) share some personal details with us on the call, we thought it would be more respectful to not include this in the presentation.

That way, the 100+ of you that registered are just getting presentation information and not somebody’s personal details that they chose to share during the live presentation.

If you are interested in scheduling a session or you want more information about couples counseling from our practice, our main phone line is 832-559-2622.

I’m also going to have that phone number at the end of the presentation, but just want to put it out there now. We can also be reached via email or text message.

All the information is on the Eddins Counseling Group website if you need more details. 

Focus on Wellness Webinar

Focus on Wellness webinar couples communication skills for better connection

This focus on wellness presentation is part of a larger webinar series that occurs every month.

They are free, they’re always virtual, and they are presented on a variety of mental health topics, from overcoming intrusive thoughts to complex grief, to issues related to child and adolescent counseling, versus issues for couples like the one today.

If you’d like to keep tabs on when these presentations are occurring, again, you can refer to our website at Eddins Counseling.

Or if you’re already an existing client with us, you can subscribe to newsletters in your virtual account with us, your record account, so that you can get more timely updates about that other than what’s just on the website.

objectives for focus on wellness webinar couples communication strategies

Objectives

  • See your partner’s action from a place of nonjudgmental acceptance.
  • Hear what your partner is truly saying by exchanging reflective statements and learning what proper needs identification sounds like
  • Speak up and break the cycle of invalidation during moments of conflict.

The objectives for this presentation are to, of course, see, hear and speak, just like the title suggests. Essentially, these are longer-term goals.

They’re not objectives that you’re going to be able to achieve just by listening to me talk for an hour, unfortunately.

Hopefully, the skills and the concepts covered in this presentation will help you to develop these skills – see, hear, and speak – and these perceptions over time and therefore improve your relationship.

So our objective is to see your partner’s actions from a place of nonjudgmental acceptance, otherwise known as observational thinking.

Also, to hear what your partner is truly saying by exchanging reflective statements and learning what proper, or really healthy, needs identification sounds like.

That’s different for different people. Healthy means different things for everybody and is based on different contextual factors. So we’ll get into that. 

And speaking up and breaking the cycle of invalidation during moments of conflict. This is the hardest one.

couples communication skills

Just to give away the secret, you’re only going to get here if seeing and hearing don’t work out for you.

So if you are:

  • incorporating observational thinking,
  • hearing what your partner is saying, and
  • practicing a cycle of validation instead of invalidation, …

… then it’s unlikely that you will reach the conflict phase and need those conflict management skills.

So just to put that out there, too.

There’s a shortcut to avoiding the speaking part, and it’s really focusing on seeing and hearing.

So we’re going to really focus on building those blocks for you guys. 

See No Evil: Observing, Not Judging

Attempting to predict what someone will say or do in an effort to defend yourself is a reaction to emotional conditioning.

The physical/mental/emotional agitation caused by high emotional arousal can predispose you to invalidate your partner’s words or actions before they have even opened their mouth!

Human beings are biologically predisposed to retain negative experiences in our memory banks, which helps us survive or avoid the same unpleasant experiences in the future. This is called negativity bias. 

Innate negativity bias is the reason why you might find yourself remembering or fixating on more of your partner’s negative traits than their positive ones, even if you are not particularly trying to recall the negative.

  • Raise your hand if you’ve ever assumed what your partner is thinking or feeling. (I know I have!)
    • And a lot of people in the live presentation said they did.
  • Now, I want you to raise your hand if you’ve ever assumed that your partner was going to act or was acting a certain way because they’ve acted that way before. (We’re all guilty, right?)

I just want to ask that because, unfortunately, as you may be aware, we are not able to read minds.

And if you are, that’s really cool. I want you to send me a separate email so that I can touch base with you and learn more about how you do that. 

Unfortunately, mind reading is usually not within most people’s capabilities

couple in disagreement fixating on partner's negative traits

Attempting to predict what someone will say or do in an effort to defend yourself, it’s something that we’ve all learned how to do as human beings.

It’s a reaction to emotional conditioning.

So the physical, mental, and emotional agitation that’s caused by high emotional arousal, which is essentially getting yourself ready for a fight or a topic that you don’t like or something like that, it’s going to predispose you to invalidate your partner’s words or actions before they have even opened their mouth. 

When I say emotional conditioning, I just want you guys to think back to middle school science when you learned about Pavlov’s Conditioned Responses in Animals, if that sounds familiar, that’s why. It’s exactly the same with people. 

The more you encounter those negative reactions from your partner that cause that physical, mental, or emotional agitation, the less likely you’re going to be to try and stimulate those topics or actions that cause those reactions.

Or, worst case scenario, you’re going to attack back.

This feedback loop is going to continue as long as there is anticipation of a negative stimulus. This essentially just means you have to break the cycle.

Break into anticipating the negative stimulus before you can see any changes.

And so you might be thinking, “Well, yeah, of course. I’ve tried to break this cycle before and it sucks and it’s hard”.

I just want to let you know why it’s so hard.

This is because human beings are biologically predisposed to retain negative experiences in our memory banks. That helps us survive or helped us, past tense, survive the same or avoid the same unpleasant experiences in the future. 

snake

  • If you get bit by a snake when you go hiking, maybe the next time you go hiking, you’re going to be a little bit wearier.
  • Or you’re going to look twice before you cross the street because when you were a kid, a car almost hit you or did hit you.

Those are extreme examples, but that’s that survival, a very concrete example of that survival instinct that humans have.

We remember those negative experiences and put them (maybe) above others so that we can protect ourselves.

That’s called negativity bias.

Because that is innate or inherent in our human experience, our biological wiring, it is the reason that you might find yourself remembering or fixating, the worst version of remembering, more of your partner’s negative traits than those positive ones.

Because even if you are not particularly trying to recall the negative, it’s built-in. 

negativity bias

Give Yourself a Little Bit of a Break

So for those of you who have:

  • been trying to fix this yourself and it’s been hard, or
  • maybe you didn’t even know where to start, or
  • you just were so frustrated running into the same problem, …

… give yourself a little bit of a break, a pat on the back like this biological wiring, this negativity bias that’s inherent in our survival mode is why you’ve been struggling. 

Instead of “predicting” or mind reading your partner’s actions and words or assigning your own meaning from your lived experience and life to what they’re saying or doing, it’s always going to be best practice to step back and observe. 

I mentioned that because we have a little anecdote.

So if you’ve ever taken an anthropology class or if anyone outside of taking an anthropology class knows what the definition of ethnography is, it’s the study of the customs of individual people and cultures.

And so if any of you like people-watching, it’s great. I actually did this for a class.

It’s like an experiment where I just sat up on a park bench and recorded what people were doing when they walked by it around me. And that was the extent of the assignment. 

I introduced that as your base for observational thinking.

So literally a scientific, mundane, and boring (I don’t like to use the word “objective” because objective still can be subjective for people based on their values and lived experience and culture.

So I’m not going to use the word objective, but simply observational).

I’m setting you guys up for that now because that’s how you are going to see your partner without judgment

In any relationship with strangers, like the strangers from my anthropology project or our intimate partners, it is going to be natural to form judgments.

It just happens. Whether it takes a long time or a short time, it happens. 

woman smiling on cell phone personality type

Myers Briggs Personality Test

If you’ve ever taken a Myers Briggs personality test, by any chance, then you already know whether or not you are more likely to think judgmentally because you’ve got the acronym. 

So for example, I’m an ENFJ personality type. The J stands for judgment, literally, meaning I’m more likely to judge than to perceive someone’s actions or words because I like finality and decision-making.

Not because I’m a jerk, but because there’s a deeper reason for that. I like the decision-making. 

I like finality, I like knowing where I can go next and having closed books and all that stuff. 

Unfortunately, that component of my personality also means that I’m more likely to come to a quick conclusion than to interpret someone’s actions or words more openly in an effort to make a decision.

For someone with the opposite type, that different letter acronym, the P, perceiving personality type, it might take longer to come to a decision because that person is trying to stay open to any and all possibilities before closing that book. 

So if you and your partner identify with different personality types (we’re Js, we’re P’s, we’re JJ, we’re PP), this might be one explanation for you guys butting heads.

If someone’s really quick to close the book and the other person wants to keep reading before they make a choice, that might be one reason for budding heads. 

Our personalities, our personality types, and our upbringings are going to influence how and to what degree we judge others outside of ourselves.

But we also, as human beings with some degree of empowerment over our lives, have the power to sit back outside of our own heads and outside of our own learned experiences to permit observations, and observational thinking, to dictate our responses and interpersonal relationships versus our judgment, versus our perception. 

wife on phone is upset partner is not home for dinner

Judgments, Perceptions, and Assumptions

For example, you might be preparing dinner for yourself and your loved one and waiting for them to come home from work. They told you they’d be home at 6:30. But now it’s 6:45 and you haven’t heard anything from them.

At first, you’ll think: “Oh, no, no problem. They’re just trying not to be on the phone while they drive home. They’re being safe, no problem”. But by the time it’s 7:15, you’re either getting worried, pissed off, or both. 

Suddenly you imagine:

  • Your partner dead on the side of the road.
  • You’re imagine they’re off with their coworkers, having fun, getting drinks, forgetting about the awesome dinner that you made.
  • Or worst case scenario, you’re worry they’re cheating on you. (Well, being dead is probably the worst-case scenario, but the second worst-case scenario, they’re cheating on you.)

So even at this point, if your partner calls you, or texts you to apologize, they’re running late and they’re on their way, you’re still going to stay upset. And instead of rejoicing when they walk in the door because you’ve been so excited to share this meal with them, now you’re going to be hurt and sad that they blew you off or that you perceived and judged that they were blowing you off and assumed. 

Recognizing when you’re reaching this point of inflicting judgment on your partner’s actions, and try to keep your mind open and perceptive. 

We’re not closing the book yet. And so I always tell any of my clients: “You don’t know what you don’t know. So you’ve got to reach out and ask.”

you don't know what you don't know so ask

Observational Thinking

Another example, other than the waiting on you for dinner example, is this.

The previous example about coming home late for dinner was more about judgments, perceptions, and assumptions.

This example is more related to observational thinking. So we’ve got observations, we’ve got no judgment. Those are our competing areas. 

And so in this example, you and your significant other hang out at home, doing your thing, and one of them, he or she decides to go get a sandwich.

And so instead of thinking to yourself while they start making the sandwich, “Oh, my God. Here she is, ruining all my hard work, organizing the fridge by making this stupid sandwich”.

Instead of projecting all these judgments, all these “coulda, shoulda, woulda, must-haves, must not haves” (those are all judgment words), reel it back in. You’re making a judgment about somebody’s behavior.

Now, you could choose to think about their behavior like a sportscaster narrating for a radio audience. 

The thing about radio announcers is they know that their audience can’t see the players.

Typically, they know that the people listening are on both sides, so they will either narrate maybe a little more observationally or objectively than somebody else would.

I know they still tend to inflict their opinions, sportscasters do, but bear with me. 

sports announcer

Instead of projecting your judgment on this sandwich-making episode, you could be trying to provide as much detail as possible to an audience that may be rooting for one side or the other. 

So they’re making a sandwich, then he or she grabbed the bread. Now they’re putting mayonnaise on one side and they’re putting roasted turkey on the other. And now they’re coming to sit down with me. They started taking a bite of their sandwich.

There was no: “Oh, they must be really hungry because they’re pounding down”. That’s a judgment.

Or: “Oh, they’re sitting on the other side of the room, which means they don’t want to be with me”. Judgment.

They just are. They’re just existing. 

Your goal in observational thinking is to simply watch without “could have, should have, would have, must have, must not have”. 

Watch what they’re doing. And it’s going to be a lot harder than you think to catch yourself.

But the first step is catching yourself with those judgmental thoughts, with those assumptions, with those predictions, all of that. 

woman preparing sandwich

Observing, Not Judging

How could observational, nonjudgmental thinking have prevented a past conflict between you and your partner?

This is just an example question I gave to the group who was watching the recording.

  • If you’re watching this with your partner, you can pause the video right now and talk about that amongst yourselves.
  • If you’re not watching it with your partner, you’re just watching it with yourself, you can still take a moment to pause and reflect on what this moment might have been.

It could have been recent, it could have been old, or it could have been something you’re predicting in the future to happen based on past experiences.

Any of those are good to think about right now. 

Hear No Evil: Reflection & Needs Identification  

  • Anger is almost never expressed as a primary emotion! The exception is typically when survival is threatened (e.g. injury)
  • Understanding the intersection of different emotions can lead to better needs identification for yourself and therefore your partner.  

Hear No Evil Reflection & Needs Identification

We’re moving from observational thinking and nonjudgmental thinking to hearing no evil.

So that’s our reflection and needs identification. I just want to start by bringing to the table, I know we’re all adults here, but has anyone seen the Pixar movie “Inside Out”? 

And hopefully, most of you will get this reference, whether you watched it with your kids or whether you watched it by yourself.

But I just want you to recall from that film that the basic emotions living in the main character’s head were going to be anger, sadness, disgust, fear, and joy.

And they actually left one out, which is “surprise”, technically. Those are our basic primal emotions. 

Only to bring this movie up to say that it’s a great therapeutic tool for understanding the impact of ignoring a primary need or emotion. So comfort in this case is the need, and sadness is the emotion.

The main character, if you haven’t seen the movie, is trying to ignore that need for comfort and that need to address their sadness in an attempt to avoid the discomfort, which ultimately is telling her parents that she was struggling with their move to a new city. 

So it’s a very watered-down, palatable example. Some of our other couples’ stuff gets a little more complicated, versus that’s more like a family dynamic.

But I have included in this slide to the right an alternative to the very therapeutically famous feelings wheel.

This model was developed by Dr. Robert Puchik. 

Anger is almost never expressed as a primary emotion.

couple very angry with each other

I would like to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that in this wheel, anger only comes after annoyance, not before.

And so if you take anything away from this presentation, I want you to take away that anger is almost never expressed as a primary emotion, even though, it technically is one.

The exception to this is typically when your survival is threatened, it makes sense to get angry when you’re injured because that’s a survival response, your fight or flight if you will. 

Anger is often a shield behind which we hide our vulnerabilities. Shame can also be a shield behind which we hide our anger.

So anger can hide between and within different feelings.

But to keep things less complicated, we’re not going to look too closely at the intersection of different feelings for now and just focus on coming for anger. 

I wonder if any of you guys watching this can recall a time that you reacted angrily because you didn’t want to admit you were embarrassed to make a mistake. This could be in any interpersonal relationship.

Or, perhaps you hid your sadness behind insults or the silent treatment because your romantic feelings or advances weren’t reciprocated.

One of the barriers to better communication of emotions actually involves addressing your primary emotion or need before resorting to anger. 

older couple, woman wiping away tears with tissue

I just want everybody to recall that understanding the intersection of different emotions, or at least how one leads to the other, will lead to better needs identification for yourself first, and then your partner second.

So remember that your partner, just like how you don’t know what you don’t know, they don’t know what they don’t know.

If you are unable to sort through your feelings or needs and express them clearly so that somebody else can understand, I wonder how your partner is supposed to figure it out if you are still figuring it out.

That’s for those partners who are having trouble expressing themselves or maybe haven’t thought about expressing themselves a little bit more clearly.

Then conversely, I just want to talk to those partners who are frustrated with the partners that can’t express themselves that I urge you to exercise patience with your partner if they’re struggling to figure that need or emotion out. 

You may switch roles in this process over time. 

you don't know what you don't know, partners are not mindreaders

Like, maybe you’re really clear one day and you’re not clear the next day, and maybe you’re clear for a few months and then after not for a few years.

It totally depends, and it depends on the person and a lot of different stuff.

But perhaps you’re a partner who’s struggling to figure out how to express themselves with their emotions or figure it out and then verbalize it to you, maybe they’ve never had to do that before, or their conflict avoidance, and they’re scared of even feeling feelings, to begin with.

What that person is going to need from you is support and not criticism as they try to find the right words to say to you.

Because ultimately a person, a partner attempting to communicate clearly with you, is a partner who cares about you and the functionality of your relationship.

So maybe they’re having trouble figuring it out. Maybe they’ve never wanted to figure it out before, but now they do.

So your job to help support them through figuring that out is to be a listening ear and wait for them to muddle through themselves before it gets to you so that you can have the best understanding of what they’re trying to say to you.

Are you having trouble trusting the observations of your partner or trusting what they were saying? 

I’m just going to tell you that fidelity and trust, that is a whole other presentation because we are just talking about basic communication skills.

Like, if you’re getting delivered information and you don’t trust the information being delivered to you, that’s a totally different set of issues that we’re talking about here. 

So we are simply talking about how to communicate wants, needs, emotions, and assumptions, not assumptions, observations, or judgments.

We’re working on mitigating that versus trust.

If you guys are sitting there thinking “When is she going to get to trust?” that is a totally different pie than what we’re going through today.

So just want to warn you now, that requires a different level of therapeutic involvement than basic communication skills. There’s some more digging that has to go on there to understand the trust and the lack thereof. 

partners trying to communicate

How communication goes two ways? 

Like they always say, it takes two to tango.

You may be trying your hardest to implement all of these tools, all of these communication strategies, all of this knowledge, and you may find that your partner is continuing to settle in the same ways.

It’s very possible this triggers the invalidation cycle, which triggers you not being able to hear them, see them, speak to them in the way that you want to because they are not playing ball with this new attempt at communicating in a more validating way. 

Because one of the participants in the original recording was saying how she continued to fall into the invalidation cycle because her partner kept accusing her of being something that she wasn’t.

So she can use the observational listening skills all day, but to continue being called names, or to continue being called something that you’re not, will always fuel the invalidation cycle.

And you’ll have to use your speak-up strategies for that, which we’ll get to at the end, your conflict mitigation strategies. 

How can you take a step back and clarify these needs and wants and emotions more clearly to your partner? 

So again, these steps, just like observational thinking and perceiving are going to sound easy, but I bet you money that you will encounter issues implementing this in practice because of that emotional arousal cycle, the emotional conditioning that we talked about at the beginning because you’ve already been conditioned to respond a certain way to certain topics from your partner.

Trying to change the cycle will be difficult because you’ll be wanting to fall back into your old ways. 

The more stressed you are, the more tired you are, the more you’re dealing with other issues in your life, and the more they are dealing with other issues in their life, you’ll fall back into it.

It’s just habitual. So you’re making a new habit and these are the ways to do it. 

Remember to be patient with each other while you’re practicing these new skills because if everyone could get it right the first time they tried, they wouldn’t need couple of them.

Have you ever broken eye contact with your partner? 

  • Maybe when you told them that you were fine, you noticed that they have been quiet during dinner tonight.
  • Their head movement was a little dramatic, but to go from direct eye contact to no eye contact?
  • Or maybe you have noticed you haven’t been interacting much during dinner.

These are body language queues that are going to indicate to your partner that what you’re saying is not true. You’re saying one thing and you’re doing another thing sends a mixed message. 

I’m sure that you’ve all heard the expression “actions speak other than words”, or seen the statistics that indicate that nonverbal cues are often given more weight than verbal ones when you’re interacting interpersonally.

These body language cues are telling your partner that what you’re saying is not true and that you’re hiding that primary need or emotion that you just spent. 

So they’re going to keep digging or bothering you, or they’re going to leave you alone, but they’re going to know you’re not honest and they’re going to bring it up later if you continue to act that way.

And some people don’t even realize that they’re acting that way until they really pay attention to their own heads. Some people just get used to reacting a certain way and you don’t realize that you’re doing it after a while. 

Is Your Body Language and Tone of Your Voice Congruent with Your Words?

In order to keep your partner from calling you on that mismatch of body language and words, which is called incongruence, the fancy therapist word, and annoying you further. And when you’re annoyed, that eventually leads to what? Anger. Yes.

And so then you have to match your body language with the feeling you’re trying to portray, or you have to verbalize the feeling that your body is portraying. 

Those are your two options to match up with what’s going on and make your partner understand that what you’re saying is true or that what you’re doing is the same thing as what you’re saying.

And so other than physical cues, inflection is a big one for this that creates incongruence.

If your partner has ever warned you “do not take that tone with me”, that’s the same as catching you being incongruent with your words and your body language.

In this case, your body language is the inflection

You probably didn’t realize you had a tone until they said something, and then you got angry because they said you had a tone because you are annoyed that they said that.

And then it became anger real fast because you’re emotionally conditioned to do that.

See how all these things get together?

This is another area in which to explore when someone calls you on your incongruence to explore your primary needs and emotions. 

therapists listen to make sure they hear you correctly

What came before the anger? 

  • Was I sad? 
  • Was I hurt? 
  • Was I hungry? 
  • Was I thirsty? 
  • Was I tired? 
  • Was I stressed? 

Scan yourself for that before you react. An apology is like icing on the cake. You don’t have to do that if you don’t feel like it. But you expressed your primary need instead, and then they’re going to immediately diffuse. 

Another option is to use reflecting exercises, which is actually a popular communication technique with therapists to ensure that you’re hearing each other correctly.

So that’s the secret. I gave you the therapist’s secret: We reflect on what you’re saying to make sure that we hear you right.

You can use the exact same tool with your partner to make sure you’re on the same page. This exercise is especially helpful with couples who continually present their different versions of “the truth”. 

You’ve all been there. Someone remembers something totally different than the other one. The reason that happened is that, from the beginning of the communication, you guys were not receiving the same message. Hence, you remember it differently.

If you clarify the statements back and forth, then there’s no way to misconstrue someone’s point because you literally repeat what the person said back to them. 

So no tone, no incongruent body language. You got to be in the zone. Everything matching up to be able to do this exercise, which is why I brought that up first. 

couple practicing conflict mitigation skills

Use interrogative statements instead of declarative statements to establish meaning

To confirm that you heard them correctly, you can also be extra excellent and slip the end of the statement into a higher pitch and make it a question that comes off as less accusatory. 

You want the end of your sentence to sound like a question mark because you’re confirming with them, you heard them right. 

Practicing this type of communication with your partner outside of conflict is going to make it easier to apply when a conflict does arise. 

This is for the same reason that rehearsing your response to an argument will help you feel better prepared to enter a conflict.

For example, your partner walks in and gets upset that you left some dirty dishes or some crumbs on the countertop. And you were just sitting down, watching TV, and not doing anything about it.

So he asked: “Hey, I see you already ate dinner over here”.

And so you, in an emotional conditioned state, anticipating you’re going to fight about this, but haven’t cleaned up after yourself, go:

“Well, I’m just really tired and I wanted to sit down for five minutes. I just finished eating and I’m going to get to it”. 

So he has the option to push your button and go: “Well, it’s still dirty over here. When are you going to get to it?”

We don’t want to go there because he’s making an assumption that you’re not going to do the work. — Judgment.

He could then say alternatively, using his reflective statement from what you just said: “Wow, okay, you’re really tired and you’ll get to it later.”

And if you want to make it a question like: “Oh, you’re tired and you’ll get to it later?”

That’s even less accusatory than the other statement, which is exactly what you said.

Then you have the chance to go: “Yeah, don’t worry about it”There was no fight to be had.

There almost was a fight to be had, but we combatted it.

This was just a mini case study that I made up to demonstrate some holes for communication where you could practice amongst yourself in a group or by contributing where some of these exercises or techniques or ideas that we’ve talked about could come into play.

Communication Techniques

Communication Techniques

Speak No Evil: Interrupting Conflict

We’ve come to the final part, which everyone was waiting for, which is Speak No Evil: “Interrupting Conflict” between you and your partner.

This is the hardest part of any communication, not just with couples, but any communication with somebody else. Being able to interrupt conflict in the thick of it is very hard. 

Removing those judgments and assumptions from the view of our partner, plus an enhanced ability to communicate exactly what we need and want is going to remove the stairway to this conflict.

But sometimes there are issues that are just too touchy for us. Sometimes someone is too conflict-avoidant to even get their needs across in the first place. And so you end here in the conflict stage.

You’re going to need to know how to break that cycle of invalidation once it starts:

  • Recognize when the conflict is one that involves values or perpetual problems.
  • Experiment (e.g. act the opposite) or even rehearse your reaction in advance.
  • In a neutral mood and setting, decide together on “code words” or physical touch you can each use to communicate what you need during conflict.
  • Remember that hurting a person you love ultimately just hurts you!

Every family has different values

So since you and your partner came from different families, hopefully, it would be very unlikely that you both would hold all the same values.

And even within families, people grow to embrace certain values of one parent versus the other, versus a grandparent versus a cousin.

Even within families, this can be different. 

Arguments that center around values like integrity, work ethic, and closeness with your family, are not going to end.

Those fights are not going to end unless one person decides to change their values to the same ones the other person has. And then their thoughts and actions will align with this new value. 

Because values are at the core of who each person is, it is going to be very difficult to expect someone to change their value, even if you, the person that they love, disagree with them. 

couple in love sitting on couch

Along similar lines, arguments that keep popping up over and over are going to be called perpetual problems. We have perpetual problems, we have values-based arguments.

And perpetual problems can be value-centered, but they also are related to separate recurring issues or personality traits, as those ENFJs versus ENFPs versus those personality traits talked about at the beginning. 

So to give you a personal example, my parents maintained different standards of cleanliness in their respective spaces:

  • My mom likes things neat as a pin.
  • My father’s car looks like someone lives out of there.

And hearing them argue about cleanliness was really common for me when I was growing up because it was a perpetual problem that would bother the other one.

They’d say things like: “You’re seriously going to start cleaning up before we finish dinner? When are you going to pick up your office like I asked you to?”

Unfortunately, all couples, every single one, no matter how closely their values align, are going to have perpetual problems because you’re different people. 

However, couples who are part of loving, respectful relationships choose not to use perpetual problems as a skewer on which to roast their partner repeatedly. 

Essentially, it’s not the absence of perpetual problems that creates the happy couple, but the mitigation of those problems, the solving of those problems, the before, and then after the fight that helps make you a healthy couple.

And so even just recognizing that fights are continually focused on perpetual problems or values-based issues, those things that make a person who they’re going to be are going to tip one or hopefully both of you off that the fight is going nowhere, you can’t force your partner to change. 

lesbian couple smiling laughing

The more you invalidate your partner’s choice, personality, or lifestyle, the more they are going to buckle down and fight you. 

It’s like that reverse psychology.

And so, are there more concrete strategies for disrupting conflict other than just recognizing it either internally or externally?

Other than doing that, more concrete strategies for disrupting conflict include experimenting with new communication or interruptions that might feel totally out of the blue because sometimes, jarring the cycle is a great way to induce change as long as nobody is getting hurt.

I’m going to say that again: nobody should get hurt from the experimental change. 

If this seems too creative of an approach for you, just blurting stuff out or completely trying new communication you never would have tried before the opposing technique, really, is to rehearse your response to a continual conflict in a neutral environment when you’re not emotionally aroused.

Then it will become easier to implement, the more you practice, when you’re in real-life conflict with your partner.

Just like someone in a band or a musician.

Any musician who’s rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing for a competition or performance, and they memorize their music and they’re good to go.

And then when they get out there on the stage, they’ve done it a hundred times, even if their finger slips, the majority of the show goes on, or they’ve corrected that correction in practice and they can do it on the stage. It’s going to be just like that with bites. 

So rehearsing your response to a continual conflict in the neutral zone, your practice room, and drawing that out to a conflict with your partner is the eventual end goal to be able to express your needs.

This is especially helpful when at least one member of the couple is extremely conflict-avoidant. You’re changing your habitual nature to engage in a conflict, which is to go away, to avoid it, to break down, to stop engaging, or any of that.

The added confidence of rehearsing that response can help the avoidant partner voice their needs more clearly and effectively than if they did not practice, essentially.

So other than that, going back to the creative, if you and your partner have different conflict styles, this is a pretty good one for you to try.

treat your partner well older couple outside, holding hands

You can create a nonverbal or extremely short verbal response to building conflicts that simultaneously:

  1. Gives one partner permission to cool down from their emotional arousal and
  2. Lets the other partner know that the relationship is still intact and they are still loved. 

I’ve had people come up with hand signals.

> You could rub your foot against their leg if you were out to dinner with someone and you didn’t want to make a big scene with your face or with your hands.

> A quick hug and agreed-upon exit or break from the environment for wonderful parties, etc.

> There are many options of exchange to choose from. I had a really cool partnership, they did a fist bump.

But there needs to be somewhere in there an expression of I love you and that’s why… 

  • I love you and that’s why I can’t talk right now. 
  • I love you and that’s why I have to leave.
  • I love you and that’s why we need to stop.
  • I love you and that’s why I want you to share.
  • I love you and I don’t want to forget about this. 

Those people who are ready to dive right in versus the people who want to escape. 

How couples can talk to each other "I love you and that's why"

Everyone comes down from their emotional arousal at different speeds, fast or slow, depending on the topic.

Being able to communicate when you can and can’t and cannot validate your partner anymore based on your state of emotional arousal is the most important thing that you can do in a conflict. 

Continuing to talk (whether you’re down and they’re up or they’re up and you’re down) is just going to contribute to people continuing not to feel validated in their exchange.

It’s just going to hurt someone that you love to keep talking.

That’s why I recommend including that “I love you, and that’s why”.

You’re reminding them at the end of the day, this is a person that you love, you’re fighting with, and you’re hurting potentially. 

There’s that cool little neurological thing we have called mirror neurons.

This allows us to feel empathy with somebody else, which is why when you’re in an intimate relationship with somebody and you hurt them, you feel hurt too.

Our brain works like that.

But by that token that their pain is your own, seeing the fight that way, the conflict, remembering to treat your partner well because ultimately it’s going to make you feel worse or better is just one more incentive to end a fruitless argument or burgeoning conflict before it gets worse. 

Interrupting Conflict: Role-Play

Interupting Conflict

Perhaps you can role-play this with your partner in a neutral, non-emotionally charged setting. Practice some of these ways you could potentially break conflict.

You always want to review with your partner, in a neutral setting, what these strategies are going to be. Agree on them together!

If they don’t work in the emotional charge setting, go back and figure out what happened. Don’t be afraid to quality assurance your way through that for any of my business people.

  • See what went wrong,
  • why it went wrong, and
  • how you can make it better.

It may sound really silly to think about talking to your partner that way, but that’s how you’ll build that constructive communication. 

What’s one exercise from this presentation that you can try with your partner today, this week, this month, or this year?

Think individually, or decide on one together that you think is important to both of you. 

couple reading together recommended reading

Here are some recommended readings where I got a lot of information for this presentation in my own learning in conducting couples counseling. All of these are steeped in very theoretically empirically sound counseling theories. 

So “The High-Conflict Couple: A Dialectical Behavior Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy, and Validation” is the cornerstone of emotional regulation therapy.

  • It’s really great for that purpose, which is why it’s so good for couples counseling.
  • It’s helping teach you how to regulate your emotions in the context of interaction with other people.

“The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work” is the classic.

  • Dr. Gottman is renowned for making couples therapy scientific in his approach to that, so really great read.
  • A great read for anyone who’s not a therapist.

“ACT with Love” is really burgeoning out there for couples therapy.

  • There are tons of exercises in the book that you guys can try together.
  • And acceptance of commitment comes down to accepting your partner the way they are.
  • We talked about that values and personality stuff that just comes prepackaged with your partner.
  • Plus commitment, so commitment to them, commitment to your relationship, commitment to both feeling good in the relationship.

That’s where Act with Love is coming from. 

I threw in the “The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living” because I actually read this for one of my classes, and there are some really great examples of how stress impacts your partnership or how your partnership impacts stress.

That’s the thing a lot of us go through with work or with our other family members.

Stress can impact our couples’ relationship.

I threw that one in here, too. 

conflict mitigation skills for couples

About the Facilitator

This is just info about me. I am accepting new clients. So if you guys are interested in scheduling with me, reach out to admin at eddinscounseling dot com via email. 

I am a candidate for my LPC Associate. This means I’m about to graduate from the University of Houston, Clear Lake as a practicum student. This is my last semester.

This is contingent on me passing my exam and getting a background check and all that stuff. So that will be happening for me over the summer.

It may make my availability a little skimpy, but I am still accepting new clients at this time. I will be moving to the Eddins Counseling – Montrose location in April. 

Thank you guys for watching this. 

And this is my direct email jennifer@eddinscounseling.com if you want to reach out to me directly for a session or for any information.

I hope you guys all have a wonderful rest of your week. 

 

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