By Lawrence Kaufman, Florida Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) 561-302-0568
Press the pause button! Slow down! Learn slow motion analysis! Freeze frame the action! Observe more, and talk less than you usually do in a discussion with your partner! These are words of advice for how you can generally improve the quality of your dialogs together.
You will probably discover great benefits once you are able to slow down and reflect more on what you have just communicated — both verbally and non-verbally. You will benefit by noticing and becoming curious about a fuller range of direct and indirect interpersonal messages that have been exchanged. You will be much less likely to end up feeling as if you have been “arguing over nothing.” You will gain clarity (a clear understanding) as to what is going on between the two of you that you may not have initially been aware of.
This seeming “nothingness” that sometimes bogs the two of you down, and throws you off course, is actually filled with important meanings. At first, these meanings may not be apparent. They may seem invisible. You will need to work hard to discover what has been communicated – or not communicated — from both of you. Sometimes the messages one person sends to another, or thinks they are sending to another, is not necessarily the same message received by the person you are in discussion with.
For example, in a certain instance, you may have good intentions in what you say to your partner, but your partner may not interpret you as having good intentions. Something has gone wrong with this attempt at feeling closer. Hopefully, both of you will be curious, and not judgmental, and then try to figure out why your seemingly “simple” or “straightforward” attempted communication has gone awry (or became misinterpreted or distorted along the way). When such a “communication miss” occurs, it is time to “step back into the observing position” so that you can review your discussion from different vantage points: yours, your partner’s, and an imagined objective observer.
At times, people are “misattuned” to one another. That is, they may not be in synch or tuned in to the other, or be “on the same page” as the other. When you attempt to talk out a communication issue or problem between the two of you, it is so important not to blame your partner for what doesn’t go well in your discussions. It is so much easier to see what your partner is doing “wrong” than to see and understand what you might be contributing to what is not working out well in your communications.
One bottom line, which may not be apparent (at least at first), is that “it takes two to tango” – that is, both participants in the conversation usually contribute to what goes on between them. One or both partners may be misperceiving, distorting, transferring, or “simply” distracted, not communicating clearly, or not listening very well at the moment (for whatever the reason[s]). (Note: To “transfer,” in a psychological sense, means to experience an other as if they were a significant person from the past. Thus, a person can be said to be having a “negative father transference” towards their current partner. What this means is that at a particular moment in time, the partner seems to be just like (in an unpleasant way) one’s actual father in the past. We can call this a form of emotional memory. One feels towards the current partner something similar to what he or she had experienced in the past in relationship to her or his own father. Often, people are not aware of having transference reactions.
Some of the couples I work with are convinced, when I first start working with them, that their spouse/ partner is 90% (or whatever the high percentage is) at fault for the problems in their shared relationship. Sometimes they feel unfairly criticized, misunderstood, misinterpreted, and/or defensive when I give them feedback on what I perceive to be their own contribution to what might be “going wrong” in their relationship.
A person needs to be relatively nondefensive in order to be able to distinguish between constructive and non-constructive criticism. A person also needs to have relatively high self-esteem and self-worth in order to be able to learn from experience, and learn from another. People can run into trouble when they usually are convinced that they are “right” and the other is “wrong.” Too much “certainty” about what is “reality” and what is not, can lead to unresolvable problems. For example, it is not infrequent that people during a heated argument with their partner say such things as: “That’s not true…You’re not remembering correctly…You don’t know what you are talking about…That didn’t happen that way…I can’t believe you think that way…”, and so on.
When I talk about viewing intimate discussions through a magnifying glass, I am urging partners in close relationships to pay a lot more attention to what is being said directly, what is not being talked about, and what is being communicated non-verbally (as through facial expressions, bodily movements, and tones of voice). This kind of issue can be viewed or perceived from the perspective of information processing. The more information you both are aware of — coming from yourself and from the other — the better you will be able to accurately decipher, decode, and understand what is going on within yourself, within your partner, and between the two of you. In a more thorough examination (or analysis) of interpersonal communication, one first starts from the surface, and then goes deeper if necessary.
At times, couples I work with record some of the serious and emotionally charged (containing strong emotions) conversations they have, and then slowly play back bits and pieces of this for their mutual exploration with a psychological magnifying glass. Not infrequently, partners “hear” and understand conversations differently when they have a second chance to listen to the dialog they had participated in. This is often hard and challenging work to do, but it can provide important and valuable dividends for those who use this tool in an attempt to learn about themselves and their “significant other,” and improve their relationship.