“What we got here is…failure to communicate!”
Many of you from my generation will remember the wonderful 1967 movie classic, “Cool Hand Luke”. Those from younger generations perhaps have been fortunate enough to see it on DVD. The movie follows the struggle of a petty criminal, Luke Jackson, played by Paul Newman, and his inability to adjust to the cruel dealings of a southern prison. The sadistic Prison Road Captain, played by Strother Martin, has the avowed ambition of forcing every prisoner under his care to, “Get his mind right”. Well, as you can imagine, that philosophy just didn’t sit too well with Luke.
That leads me to a memorable quote from the movie, and the basis for the topic of this post, and that is communication. At one point in the movie, The Prison Road Captain takes a club to Luke and proclaims, “What we got here is…failure to communicate!” Obviously, there are many ways to communicate in life and in marriage. Some forms of communication are productive, and some are incredibly destructive.
I can trace almost every problem couples present in my office back to a failure to communicate effectively. First and foremost, effective communication is positive communication; it is the key to an emotionally healthy relationship. Positive communication always includes such things as assuming positive intent on the part of one another. Meaning that we do not assume that our spouse is out to intentionally hurt us but rather quite the opposite, to help us. Positive communication is the ability to address any issue in such a way that the ensuing dialogue is productive and leaves everyone involved feeling good about the exchange of thoughts, feelings, ideas and solutions. Positive communication never includes verbal abuse, name-calling, yelling, bullying, sarcasm, criticism or defensiveness. Let me quickly add a caveat by saying this does not mean that we can never complain about anything or that we have to sweep all perceived problems under the rug. That is not healthy either. What I am saying is that there is a right way, and a wrong way, to deal with your complaints.
Let’s talk about the difference between complaining and criticizing. Herein lies the crucial distinction to understanding each other when trying to work through our marital difficulties. Let me again emphasize that, the vast majority of problems couples bring into my office have their root in communication difficulties. All of us need the freedom to complain to our spouse. We also need to make sure our spouse knows they have the right to complain to us. In a healthy marriage, there is a freedom of expression that allows us to talk openly without fear of retribution or shame. Each spouse must be a safe person with whom to share any thoughts and feelings. When we complain, it’s important to remember that it isn’t about our spouse, it’s about us. It’s about the way we feel about something they did or said that bothered us. For example, if my husband has done something that bothers me and I confront him about it, I would say something like, “Honey, you seem distant from me this morning and I’m troubled by it. I don’t know if anything is wrong, you may be upset with me or it might be something else, but I don’t like it when I feel like you’re keeping me at a distance. If I’ve done something to upset you, then I want you to tell me.” See how I didn’t start out by accusing or attacking him. I began by sharing how I felt and my need to understand what was happening. I also stated that I wanted to know if I had done something wrong so I could take responsibility for it. This method of communication gets everything out on the table but leaves our spouse emotionally intact without feeling hurt and a need go on the defensive.
Criticizing is different than complaining. Very different. In fact, Dr. John Gottman says he can predict with 96% accuracy within the first three minutes of a couple having a conversation whether the relationship he is watching will survive over the long-haul or not. John Gottman, Ph.D. is world-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, including the study of emotions, physiology, and communication. He was recently voted as one of the Top 10 Most Influential Therapists of the past quarter-century by the Psychotherapy Networker magazine.
Gottman bases his predictions on four potentially destructive communication styles and coping mechanisms. In his 1994 book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Dr. Gottman uses the biblical metaphor of the Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship. It’s interesting to note that he calls his very first apocalyptic horseman of destructive communication, criticism.
Criticizing our partner is different than offering a critique or having a complaint. Criticism attacks our partner at their very core. In effect, we are dismantling his or her whole being when we criticize. An example of a complaint would be: “I was scared when you were running late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.” Criticism, on the other hand would be, “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. I don’t believe you are that forgetful; you just don’t think about me.” I hope you can see the difference, and how important that difference is in the way we communicate and feel about our relationships.
Criticizing just doesn’t work. Not in marriages, not as parents, not in the work place, not in any relationship under heaven. Why? Because it destroys self: self worth, self-esteem and self-confidence. Instead, in their place lies a wake of brokenness, hurt, shame, loneliness and resentfulness. The list of negative and confusing emotions that criticizing inflicts just goes on and on. Proverbs 12:18 says, “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” I want you to ask yourself today, are your words to your spouse more like a sword being thrust in their side, or more like a gentle, loving, healing, touch?
In order to keep your communication positive, you must be very careful to position your confrontations first with love, affirmation and respect for your spouse. Keep your emotions and mouth under control. Focus on how you feel and allow your spouse the right to complain back to you and explain what is going on inside of them. Listen, reflect back, and validate each other’s feelings. If you do this, you will open up the lines of communication and be able to talk more freely with each other, without the risk of hurting each other. The fruit of positive and affirming communication is successful conflict resolution, as well as greater intimacy, greater friendship and a much more enjoyable relationship.
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