Communication — 20 February 2011
Use your words wisely for marital harmony

How couples express themselves, particularly during stressful or conflict-laden times, can make a great difference as to the outcome of their disagreements and the strength of their bond.

The use of inflammatory words as a contributor to violent behavior is currently in the news and has been legally proscribed under certain circumstances. Though the Constitution’s First Amendment holds sacred the freedom of speech, not all words are acceptable. For example, for public safety reasons, the law forbids incorrectly shouting “Fire” in a theatre.

Similarly, though not legally regulated, some words are perceived as assaultive and thus should be avoided in love relationships. Examples are: “You always (or never) do it.” “I can never trust you.” “You are lazy, incapable, wrong, selfish, weird, crazy, (or any other shaming adjective).” The listener’s likely reaction is hurt followed by a reprisal attack with his/her litany of shaming titles, withdrawal or even a physical confrontation.

People’s anger is evoked when their perspective, rights, needs/wants or inherent value appears to be threatened. Conversely, when positive words are uttered, the listener becomes more attentive and cooperative in resolving the schism.

In “You Just Don’t Understand,” the linguist Deborah Tannen describes gender differences in speech patterns. She found women in the role of peacemakers who seek agreement and men as challengers in search of solutions.

Both approaches can reduce conflict if delivered in a collaborative rather than an acrimonious style.

University of California, Berkeley researcher Robert Levenson found that the use of plural pronouns such as: “We” “Our” and “Us” as compared to “I” “Me” and “You,” contributed to greater couple benefits. He writes, “When the ‘we’ language was predominant, those 15 minutes were emotionally positive and physiologically calm, and those were also the couples who were most satisfied with their marriages.”

Responding to angry, challenging or hurtful words with an intuitively counter-indicated positive affirmation may also have a calming effect. “I understand how upset you are,” or “I do agree with your position,” stated in a calm and compassionate voice is likely to relax the agitated party and diffuse the combative stance.

The path to harmonious exchanges requires you to:

• Understand that the words, tone and gestures you use in conversation determine whether communication will become adversarial or harmonious.
• Start with “Yes.” Affirm your mate’s position. “I agree with you that we need to be united about handling the children.” Then proceed to discuss solution options.
• Use plural pronouns, “we” “us” “our.” It defines you as a team.
• As Dr. Peter Pearson says, “Be curious, not furious.” Show sincere interest in your mate’s perspective.
• Think about your spouse’s negative presentation as representing his/her hurt, fear or pain.
• State your love even when you are hurt. “I love you and know we can solve this.”
• Model calmness especially about controversial topics. Voice your desire to accommodate your spouse. Use a soft voice in stating your intent to regain your relationship harmony.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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