Many couples struggle with issues within their relationship. When they come to see us they often say, “We have communication problems.” They think that improving their communication skills will solve their relationship problems.
Communication skills can be extremely helpful. But there is a catch. You have to put communication skills into practice for them to work. Most couples are not able to do this when they need to most.
Why do some psychologists and relationship counsellors think that communications skills are the answer?
John and Julie Gottman have studied the basis of functional couple relationships since the 1980’s. They watched couples disagreeing. They could predict, with 93% accuracy, who would stay together and who would not.
They recorded the communication techniques of the happy couples who stayed together and started teaching them to the unhappy couples who didn’t use these techniques. Many therapists teach these more effective techniques to unhappy couples. So do we, and we have observed that unhappy couples feel more understood by their partners when they use the techniques. These powerful techniques work wonderfully— when used.
But there are times when couples don’t use the techniques and this causes tremendous damage to the relationship. In our work with couples, we realise that these techniques are not enough.
Everyone is emotionally sensitive to certain triggers or specific situations. Each of us has emotional buttons, and we react when these buttons are pushed.
When an emotional button is pushed, the good communication skills we’ve learnt go out the window. Now we fall back into our old dysfunctional communication patterns.
At NBP, our approach involves helping to defuse these destructive emotional buttons.
Emotional buttons activate protective strategies that were useful for us once. These strategies helped us deal with some level of distress or trauma. Our reaction was a defensive response. Over time, these strategies can become ingrained. We lose all flexibility and react strongly to any situation that reminds us in any way of the original distress or trauma.
Now our partners will describe us as “over-reacting” or “unreasonable”.
We cannot see that we are over-reacting because the hurt and distress we feel is so strong and intense. We can feel it inside us and for us, it is real.
There is no way we are able to THINK about the useful communication techniques. There is no way we can accept our partner’s position. We FEEL too overwhelmed, hurt or angry.
Of course our partners have their own emotional buttons too. Our reactions can trigger reactions in them. Now the problem escalates and our relationship can soon be in real trouble.
Until the emotional buttons are sufficiently defused, there is not much point teaching communication skills. Doing so can raise the couple’s expectations of each other and then create even more problems when those expectations are not met.
That is why we make sure we identify and defuse any particularly potent emotional buttons the couple are harbouring before we teach them too much about communication skills.
Do you and your partner need help with your relationship? Our team at North Brisbane Psychologists can help. Book an appointment today.