Communication in Romantic Relationships… Is it Possible?
Communication between romantic partners is often cited as the number one challenge they face in their relationship and often the number one reason couple’s head to counselling. So if communication is so difficult why bother with it? The answer may be in looking at the purpose of communication in intimate relationships — that is to be known and to know someone else at a deeper level. It is can also be viewed as a way to coordinate our lives with each other to create some sort of rhythm. Communication in romantic relationships involves exchanging needs, wants, facts, and ideas between two people who might hold different positions in order to achieve a mutual understanding. If it weren’t for communication how easily would we know that our partner does not prefer pets or has a legitimate need to be alone in order to re-energize.
Understanding what the different elements of communication are can help us figure out where exactly the breakdowns occur in the process so that we can improve those areas. There are seven critical elements of the communication process: (1) the sender (2) the message (3) encoding (4) the communication channel (5) the receiver (6) decoding and (7) feedback. Let’s unpack each of these elements and see if there is something we ourselves can do to improve our communication with our partner.
The sender is the person who wants to convey a message with the purpose of passing information and ideas to others. The sender’s job is to take deep breaths and try to stay out of “attack/ blame” mode. Perhaps reminding themselves that if they believe the other person to generally be a good-hearted person, whatever happened or however the receiver responds to the message is not to purposely harm the sender.
The message is the topic of the communication. The information may include wants, needs opinions, preferences, ideas, tasks, and emotions. The topics may be an area of challenge for the sender to express and the receiver to hear because of differences or an uncomfortable past with the subject matter.
Encoding involves converting a subject matter that is theoretical and intangible (i.e. feeling loved or respected) into symbols such as words, actions, pictures or gestures. Here is where the sender can fail at making special efforts to use “softened” words that are gentle, concise, positive and non-blaming. Additionally, non-verbal cues that can be overlooked to enhance clear communication are giving eye contact, using a respectful tone of voice, providing a gentle touch, and softening facial features.
The communication channel is the means or method by which the message is sent. The channels include face-to-face, letters, telephone, and social media formats (i.e. text, e-mail, Facebook, Instagram, etc.). This can be an area of miscommunication as communicating, for example, over e-mail or text can easily be misconstrued because of the lack of non-verbal communication (i.e. facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language) as well as the unreliability of technology at times.
The receiver is the person who receives the message or for whom the message is meant for. The receiver is the one who tries to understand the information in the best possible manner. The receiver is best to take some deep breaths, let go of defences, and remind themselves that they are not a bad person but that this is an opportunity to clarify and work things out.
Decoding is the process of the receiver converting the message in a way so that they may extract its meaning to their complete understanding. Things that the receiver may do that can get in the way of decoding the message content properly are being distracted, interrupting the sender, thinking about what one wants to say while the sender is speaking, and making judgments and assumptions.
Feedback is the process of ensuring that the receiver has understood the accurate meaning of the sender’s message1. This is an important step that can go wrong such as when the receiver argues, counterattacks, and defends themselves. Conversely, reflecting in advance of offering feedback involves repeating or paraphrasing what the receiver heard the sender say. It may involve asking the question, “Did I understand what you were saying correctly?” This may avoid unwanted misunderstandings.
As you can probably see above there are many opportunities for communication to breakdown. The above process may seem simple in theory but because we are emotional beings who subconsciously use past memories and feelings to respond to present situations, communication can get easily get derailed even with our best efforts.
John Gottman, an influential therapist who has been studying successful and failed relationships, has further described four types of communication that are predictors for divorce if used regularly. They are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. Criticism involves blaming, judging or making a global attack on the partner’s personality or character expressed through words (“you…”), tone of voice, and facial expression. Defensiveness can include counterattacks to defend the receiver’s innocence and avoid taking responsibility for a problem. It is often displayed as whining and cross-complaining. Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from conversation physically or emotionally providing no cue that they are listening. Contempt is criticism that involves hostility or disgust displayed through rolling of the eyes, sarcasm, mocking, name-calling, or belligerence. Gottman found that contempt is the strongest indicator of divorce out of the four styles2. It appears that we are best to stay away from the above ways of communicating if we want to be one of the successful couples that have an effective communicative relationship.
For more in-depth information and tips on how to improve communication in your relationships please visit the following links:
1 Chand, S. 7 Major Elements of Communication Process at http://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/business-communication/7-major-elements-of-communication-process/25815
2 Gottman, J. (2000). The Seven Principals of Making a Marriage Work. Three Rivers Press: New York
Communication is such an important and vital part of human existence and relationships, yet it is both simple and complex at the same time.
Communication involves the sharing of two peoples own life experiences with each other, so it is vital to know, and to be known.
Intimacy is defined by knowing, and being known but to get there you have to be able to communicate what your wants, feelings and desires are, and to be heard.
This process is open to so much misinterpretation and can be easily misconstrued. This contributes to and causes a ton of marriage problems. What we want to do as counsellors is to provide you with some guidelines, new understandings and techniques to make sure that the way you speak does in fact communicate accurately what you are trying to get across.
Then, we want to help the people who are listening to have better listening skills so they know what to absorb from what is being presented to them. Because communication involves the sending of a message and a receiving of a message, it involves a speaker and a receiver. When the receiver receives what they think they are hearing and can better decode what they think they are hearing, then they send back another message. However, if the new message is based on erroneous assumptions it is going to lead to miscommunication which will lead to frustration and anger, and relationship problems. So communication is a hugely important part of being in a relationship.
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A quote to reflect upon: Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.
Winnie the Pooh
Effective communication is necessary to make sense of our relationships and avoid land mines that can sabotage our quality of life.
Towards a better understanding of how we think and act toward each other and ourselves, consider how our mind can run in a frenzy if we don’t recognize and take charge of our own internal thinking processes.
15 Common Cognitive Distortions
By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
What’s a cognitive distortion and why do so many people have them? Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.
For instance, a person might tell themselves, “I always fail when I try to do something new; I therefore fail at everything I try.” This is an example of “black or white” (or polarized) thinking. The person is only seeing things in absolutes — that if they fail at one thing, they must fail at all things. If they added, “I must be a complete loser and failure” to their thinking, that would also be an example of overgeneralization — taking a failure at one specific task and generalizing it their very self and identity.
Cognitive distortions are at the core of what many cognitive-behavioral and other kinds of therapists try and help a person learn to change in psychotherapy. By learning to correctly identify this kind of “stinkin’ thinkin’,” a person can then answer the negative thinking back, and refute it. By refuting the negative thinking over and over again, it will slowly diminish overtime and be automatically replaced by more rational, balanced thinking.
Dr. Aaron Beck first proposed the theory behind cognitive distortions and David Burns was responsible for popularizing it with common names and examples for the distortions.
We take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted.
Example: I have a birth mark on my arm so my beautiful eyes, complexion, hair, etc., are nullified.
2. Polarized Thinking.
Things are either “black-or-white.” We have to be perfect or we’re a failure–there is no middle ground. You place people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and situations. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
We come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, we expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
4. Jumping to Conclusions.
Without individuals saying so, we know what they are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, we are able to determine how people are feeling toward us. For example, a person may conclude that someone is reacting negatively toward them and don’t actually bother to find out if they are correct. Another example is a person may anticipate that things will turn out badly, and will feel convinced that their prediction is already an established fact.
We expect disaster to strike, no matter what. This is also referred to as “magnifying or minimizing.” We hear about a problem and use what if questions (e.g., “What if tragedy strikes?” “What if it happens to me?”).
For example, a person might exaggerate the importance of insignificant events (such as their mistake, or someone else’s achievement). Or they may inappropriately shrink the magnitude of significant events until they appear tiny (for example, a person’s own desirable qualities or someone else’s imperfections).
Example: The conservative majority in the 2011 federal election is going to destroy my future and we will all be poor and not able to afford food.
Thinking that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to us. We also compare ourselves to others trying to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc. A person sees themselves as the cause of some unhealthy external event that the were not responsible for. For example, “We were late to the dinner party and caused the hostess to overcook the meal. If I had only pushed my husband to leave on time, this wouldn’t have happened.”
7. Control Fallacies.
If we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as helpless a victim of fate. For example, “I can’t help it if the quality of the work is poor, my boss demanded I work overtime on it.” The fallacy of internal control has us assuming responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around us. For example, “Why aren’t you happy? Is it because of something I did?”
8. Fallacy of Fairness.
We feel resentful because we think we know what is fair, but other people won’t agree with us. As our parents tell us, “Life is always fair,” and people who go through life applying a measuring ruler against every situation judging its “fairness” will often feel badly and negative because of it.
We hold other people responsible for our pain, or take the other track and blame ourselves for every problem. For example, “Stop making me feel bad about myself!” Nobody can “make” us feel any particular way — only we have control over our own emotions and emotional reactions.
We have a list of ironclad rules about how others and we should behave. People who break the rules make us angry, and we feel guilty when we violate these rules. A person may often believe they are trying to motivate themselves with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if they have to be punished before they can do anything.
For example, “I really should exercise. I shouldn’t be so lazy.” Musts and oughts are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When a person directs should statements toward others, they often feel anger, frustration and resentment.
11. Emotional Reasoning.
We believe that what we feel must be true automatically. If we feel stupid and boring, then we must be stupid and boring. You assume that your unhealthy emotions reflect he way things really are — “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
12. Fallacy of Change.
We expect that other people will change to suit us if we just pressure or cajole them enough. We need to change people because our hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them.
13 . Global Labeling.
We generalize one or two qualities into a negative global judgment. These are extreme forms of generalizing, and are also referred to as “labeling” and “mislabeling.” Instead of describing an error in context of a specific situation, a person will attach an unhealthy label to themselves.
For example, they may say, “I’m a loser” in a situation where they failed at a specific task. When someone else’s behavior rubs a person the wrong way, they may attach an unhealthy label to him, such as “He’s a real jerk.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded. For example, instead of saying someone drops her children off at daycare every day, a person who is mislabeling might say that “she abandons her children to strangers.”
14. Always Being Right.
We are continually on trial to prove that our opinions and actions are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable and we will go to any length to demonstrate our rightness. For example, “I don’t care how badly arguing with me makes you feel, I’m going to win this argument no matter what because I’m right.” Being right often is more important than the feelings of others around a person who engages in this cognitive distortion, even loved ones.
15. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy.
We expect our sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if someone is keeping score. We feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.
So now that you know what cognitive distortions are, how do you go about undoing them?
Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York: New American Library.
Burns, D. D. (1980). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: New American Library.