Approaching Marital Communication Problems

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by The Studio of Mental Health and Psychology

A lack of communication skills is a typical presenting problem of couples. Indeed, problematic receptive and expressive communication skills are highly associated with a source of other common complaints, such as a lack of empathy, insufficient attention to each other, conflict escalation and inability to employ a problem-solving approach to solve problems.

But let us s start with communication skills, as they are at the core of effective communication necessary for dealing with all kinds of issues, be they marital or not.

Expressive and Receptive Communication Skills

Expressive communication starts with the speaker recognising their own wishes, feelings, thoughts etc., and then articulating them in the first person (the I-statement as opposed to the You-statement) explicitly and clearly (e.g. “I feel frustrated when you don’t help get the children ready for school.” Or “I feel so happy when you come home and ask me how my day was.”)

Receptive communication skills comprise

  • non-verbal attending (head-nodding, eye contact etc.),
  • paraphrasing,
  • empathising,
  • other expressions of understanding and good listening. 

These skills are the building blocks for successful problem solving.

Among the most evident elements of problematic marital communication are

  • persistent criticism, 
  • sting in the tail (a positive statement followed by a criticism),
  • mind-reading (i.e. A knows better than B what is in B’s mind),
  • monologues with no break for comment,
  • insufficient listening,
  • inability to express a feeling,
  • lack of empathy.

Obviously, effective and clear communication is based on constructive and positive assertions rather than complaints and accusations, and a problem-solving approach is one of the best ways to establish a constructive dialogue.

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Problem Solving

Problem solving is a significant element of most cognitive-behavioural treatments and especially when working with problematic relationships.

Along with the mentioned communication skills, problem-solving skills provide the relationship partners with a basis to be their own “therapists”.

Problem-solving skill training involves two distinct stages: problem identification and problem resolutionThis two-stage process helps couples avoid suggesting changes before the problem has been identified.

Problem-solving skill training underlines the importance of identifying a problem before endeavouring to resolve it. The reason for keeping these two processes discrete is that partners can waste a lot of energy and time attempting to solve something they have not agreed on as being the issue they wish to address.

Phase 1. Identifying a Problem

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Hewison, Clulow and Drake (2015) mention four brilliant rules for identifying the problem:

  1. In expressing a problem, try to start with something positive.
  2. Be precise and avoid insulting phrases or words
  3. Express feelings.
  4. Be succinct when identifying the problem.

These rules are intended for developing helpful ways of discussion, which do not contribute to any relationship gridlock.

The overall goal of the problem-identification phase is for partners to agree about the problem defined being the emphasis of their attention. A well-defined problem comprises

  • a positive statement, 
  • an explanation of the undesirable behaviour, 
  • a description of the situations in which the problem takes place, 
  • the repercussions of the problem for the partner who was troubled by it.

Phase 2. Solving a Problem

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After the problem has been defined, the partners brainstorm and note down as many solutions as they can think of.

8 rules are suggested for phase two of the problem-solving procedure:

  1. Both partners should admit their role in creating the problem.
  2. Only one issue should be debated at a time.
  3. Paraphrase.
  4. Avoid interpretations—talk only about what can be noticed.
  5. Be impartial rather than negative.
  6. Be solution-focused.
  7. Aim for compromise in conclusions about behavioural changes.
  8. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each brainstormed solution.
  9. Come to an agreement.

Each partner must know these rules, as the process cannot be fruitful without both partners agreeing on the guidelines. If a couple is unable to do so, it may point to the need for acceptance work before getting on the problem-solving effort.

HANDOUT “Diagnosing a communication problem in your marriage”

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