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Communicate better in relationships
Posted: February 18, 2009
Last Updated: February 18, 2009

Over the past 20 years, experts have been putting our intimate relationships under the microscope, studying our private reactions by both looking at what goes on between partners and inside them: videotaping every grimace, shrug, and caress; audio taping every expletive and sigh, and monitoring physiological reactions throughout the entire process. Researchers have come to understand why some relationships happily endure, what can make some unhappy, and what can cause divorce, which still claims half of all first marriages often within the first seven years.


Key to a happy and healthy relationship is no surprise: communication. Experts say handling conflict in a manageable way fosters couples' commitment to work at their marriage. For couples about to be married, it prevents an erosion of the positive aspects of their relationship. The biggest trick to communicate effectively in relationships is being heard by one's partner. We all have a variety of filtersólevels of emotional arousal, expectations, fears, cultural and social beliefs, differences in style and pace, and even in a need for self-protection that distort the unpleasant messages our partners send when they speak. So what one person thinks is a perfectly neutral statement may land like a grenade on their spouse. What's more, we're usually busy preparing our rebuttal instead of actively listening to our spouse.


Experts have found five basic skills for positive communication in relationships:


          Start softly. Present your complaints to your partner without criticism. Criticism involves attacking or blaming a partner, and only incites defensiveness. Defensiveness shuts down communication because instead of focusing on the original issue, a person feels the need to confront or protect themselves from the criticism. 

          Accept influence. Positively take in your partner's attempts to request things of you. In good marriages, both men and women freely give and receive influence from each other. Since women are already good at accepting influence from men, researchers have found, a husband's role becomes critical in predicting whether a marriage will survive. To the degree that men can accept influence from their wives, marriages succeed.

          Put the brakes on conflict. This means doing anything to halt or reverse negative turns in the conversation. The conversation might have begun wrong, maybe with complaints, and you need to start over or you can see your partner isnít listening or maybe your spouse is becomes defensive. Stop the conversation. Instead of making negative rebuttals or comments, try to interpret the negativity, sooth the situation, and de-escalate the discord.

          Make use of physiologic soothing. Men are more physiologically aroused during conflict, a factor that often prompts withdrawal, which is deadly for relationships. Men will remain engaged in problem-solving only if they or their partners take specific steps to calm them down. One of the best ways to do this is to declare a break during heated discussions, and reconvene after at least 20 minutes of thinking about something else. Really, this amount of time helps both men and women to clear their head and focus on the real issue, not the immediate hurt feelings or defensiveness a comment or criticism made during the conversation.

          De-escalate discord. In good marriages, couples actively de-escalate conflicts by doing things like injecting humor into situations or planting a kiss on their partner's cheek. Couples do this unconsciously by bringing up a longstanding joke or an endearing situation to lighten the mood of the more serious conversation. They arenít making light of the situation or communication, they are reminding each other of their continued commitment though recalling shared experiences or affection.


Remember that all relationships take work. A floundering relationship didnít reach that point in a single night, and to move away from that point can take months of hard work to repair the relationship. All relationships, be they marriage, friendships or even dating partners, take time and work to keep strong. Relationship counseling teaches communication skills and can identify stumbling blocks in communication and positive responses and skills to help couples keep their relationships strong and healthy.


If your relationship could use counseling call Border Area Mental Health Services. To reach Border Area Mental Health Services in Grant and Hidalgo Counties, call 388-4412; in Catron County, call 533-6649 for referral; in Luna County, call 546-2174.  For CRISIS, call 538-3488 or outside Silver City, call 1-800-426-0997.

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© 2008 by Border Area Mental Health Services and Putting the Web to Work. Front-page photo copyright by Bob Pelham, Pinos Altos Cabins, and used by permission. All rights reserved. For the privacy and comfort of our clients and staff, the photographs used in this site are representative and do not show specific individuals associated with BAMHS.