Posted by Michael Fronce, LMFT
Jeff and Cindy came to their first marriage counseling session anxious to repair their 15 year relationship. The session started like most, me getting to know them and learning a bit more about their story. As we explored their marital strengths it was clear they deeply loved each other, but that love was now being questioned by each of them. They explained they had not been able to communicate about anything except logistics. Cindy swore Jeff did not have the ability to communicate at all. She complained about his avoidance of important issues. While she was voicing her frustration, he rolled his eyes and sighed. He said she was blowing things out of proportion and that he knows how to communicate. He was sick of how often she interrupted and didn’t listen. Jeff said he felt like he was never going to please his wife so he admitted to withdrawing from conversations. They both wanted me to get the other to communicate better.
Jeff and Cindy had made a good decision to reach out for help. These things fester. Communication problems are one of the most common concerns that bring couples to Well Marriage Center for marriage counseling. When we’re able to catch these communication blocks early, we’re often able to help the couple avoid the more toxic and deeper level problems that come years down the road if left unchecked. The good news is our counselors have the experience and training to be helpful. While there are often underlying issues that play a part in some communication breakdowns (which would be an entirely different blog post), I often find myself starting by helping couples practice the skills of effective communication. It’s helpful to see where they are and what they already know. This is what I did with Jeff and Cindy.
Now the movies and TV comedies give practicing communication skills a bad rap. I get it, no one wants to simply be told to say a lot of “I statements” and repeat back what the other person is saying. You’re right, that doesn’t fix communication problems. However, I’m often surprised by how a simple intervention or solution can indeed become the impetus for change.
I was looking for just that type of impetus for change when I gave Jeff and Cindy a task early in our communication work. They shared about how one of their rituals is to go to a certain fast food establishment for dinner. So I invited them to dinner. Well, I should say that I invited them to pay attention in a different way next time they went for dinner. Their task was to observe how the person at the counter took their order. When they came back to the next session, they were excited to talk with me about what they saw.
The server greeted Jeff and Cindy warmly, asked how he could serve them and then listened to their order. He busily punched the order into the system and then did something a little strange. They noticed that the server repeated back their order to make sure that he had it correct. He then asked if there was anything else that they would like. He then proceeded to check their order again before moving on and telling them the cost. After the order was confirmed and the payment was made, the server thanked the couple. So simple, yet for them it made an impression. They appreciated the way that the server listened to them, took the time to get their order right, and did not move on until he was sure that he had heard it correctly and that it was what the couple wanted.
That’s what they each desired from the other. They missed being truly heard and respected. Here’s the important breakthrough part: they both began looking at what they, individually, had been doing to keep them from communicating effectively. They each began talking about ways they would like to focus on each other, listen to each other, and truly hear each other. That led them into Jeff’s withdrawing (Cindy felt abandoned and got anxious). Cindy would then over pursue Jeff to calm her anxiety (which then had Jeff withdrawing again). So we explored this cycle and ways to interrupt it. Effective communication helped! They began making such incredible positive progress about the deeper level issues that were affecting their relationship. The good news – Jeff and Cindy both began to find each other again, connect with each other again, and experience a closeness they hadn’t felt in years.