Couples Communication: How ‘you’ is a 4 letter word

Communication is an issue in every relationship. Being able to communicate effectively with one’s partner is not an innate quality that a person is born with. It is a skill that each member of a couple needs to work on regularly and proactively if they desire a healthy and balanced relationship. Couples communication can be difficult because arguments can arise quickly over anything. Even discussions about seemingly little things, such as housework, can escalate to a level that is unnecessary and damaging. In the process, couples can quickly find themselves in a dialogal dance (meaning some sort of verbal back and forth) in trying to prove that they are right and that the other person is wrong. The irony of this, however, is that even when one person does ‘win’ an argument they ultimately lose, as evidenced by the residual negative feelings that their partner is left with. These feelings continue to show up in the relationship in concrete yet subtle ways. The one thing that escalates every argument is when people communicate with the goal of winning, rather than with the intention of strengthening the relationship.

One thing that can make couples communication harder than it needs to be is the use of the word ‘you.’ For example, statements like “you always do this,” “you never listen to me,” and “what is wrong with you” are bound to push your partner away. It reinforces the other person’s belief that something about them is bad, unlovable, or deficient. Once this happens, the other person is easily tempted to reply with a similarly intentioned statement (e.g. “Me?! What about you?!” and/or “You‘re the one who always …”). This leads the couple into the dialogal dance of trying to verbally pin down the other, while only deepening their own heart ache and turmoil.

Dr. Sue Johnson does a phenomenal job of extrapolating on this sort of dynamic in her book Hold Me Tight. One thing she examines is the feeling that prompts the first message of attack (meaning the first charged ‘you’ statement). She argues that when we attack, we are responding to feeling threatened, which is associated with feeling detached, uncared for, and defensive over a newfound sense of vulnerability in the relationship. Therefore the ‘you’ statement that ensues is an act of protection rather than an act of aggression. However, aggression incites the other person to follow suit. In a way this becomes a game of each person trying to thwart or shame the other, so as to position themself as the dominant one. What this really does is add extra and unnecessary shame on the relationship and the two people in it.

One thing I encourage couples to do is speak from their ‘I’ rather than from the other person’s ‘you.’ For instance, rather than starting off the statement with some sort of attack (i.e. “you never listen to me”) I suggest both people try just saying how they feel (i.e. “I feel unheard and alone”). This then invites the other person to step forward in a compassionate way to understand their partner and improve the lines of communication rather than instigate some sort of one-upping competition. To better illustrate this point, I have provided a more clear example.

Person Q has been feeling as though person B does not do enough housework. When Q presents this to B, B is understanding and agrees to start helping out more around the house. The next day Q comes home to a sink full of dirty dishes and B watching TV in the next room. Q, frustrated, confronts B about this and says “Aren’t you going to do the dishes?” B then gets annoyed and replies with “I just got home from work. I’ll do them later.” Q decides to walk away from the situation to avoid an argument. Several hours later B is still watching TV and the dirty dishes are still in the sink. Q, now very angry, goes back to B and says “You still haven’t done the dishes? You’re completely useless!” An argument then develops and B leaves the house for several hours. The situation does not get resolved for several days. When Q brings up this episode in couples counseling, B then replies “I was just trying to relax and Q flipped out on me. I said I would do them later and I would have, too.” This then angers Q who retaliates with hostility and the entire discussion spirals out of control. The couples counselor then turns to Q and asks “How did you feel when B didn’t do the dishes?” “Pissed off,” Q responds. “Ok,” the counselor replies, “and did your anger get B to do the dishes?” Q shakes their head. “So let’s take a second to brainstorm a more effective way to have made that happen. What was behind your anger?” Q doesn’t know what to say. The counselor then suggests “How about just saying how you feel?” Q takes a deep breath before saying “I feel alone, like I’m not even married. I feel like no one cares about me. I know he was tired, but I feel like I always comes second. I just wanted the dishes done so I could feel heard and appreciated.” B instantaneously exclaims and turns to Q with “That would have been so much better! I would have done the dishes sooner had I known you felt that way about it!”

This is just one little example of how couples communication can get so easily twisted and spiral out of control. Speaking from your first person ‘I’ can help improve the means of communication because it allows you to express yourself in a way to pulls your partner closer instead of pushing them away.

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  1. Book Review: "Hold Me Tight" by Dr. Sue Johnson - Alex Hoeplinger, M.A., Berkeley Psychotherapist | Alex Hoeplinger, M.A. - April 30, 2014

    […] know I briefly mentioned this text in a previous post on couples communication, but wanted to dedicate an entire blog post to the book Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson. Any […]

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