Blog by Miriam

5 Tips To Improve Bad Communication

Have you seen the movie This is 40? You won’t find any kind of sage marital advice or existential profundity – but you will find yourself hopefully able to laugh hysterically about the absurd situations every married couple has found itself in, at one time or another. Check out the fight scene from the movie here:

Ever had this kind of a fight with your spouse where both of you are trying to follow the “rules” of “good communication” and it turns out rather absurd, rather quickly? Consider these 5 tips to improve bad communication in your marriage.

  1. 1. Good communication is not about following rules or squeezing techniques into tense moments. Sometimes tense moments are just tense moments. Trying to “behave” during them sometimes misses the jewels and gems you may learn about yourself and your spouse. I’m not advocating “blowing” at your spouse. Walking away when things get tense can be a very important relationship saving discipline. But on some occasions losing your cool can be useful. It may help you recognize the load you are carrying in the relationship and it may help you let go of it a little. It may help you identify feelings you weren’t aware you had. It can sometimes even help you let go of these feelings. One wife I spoke to recently saw her husband’s newly emerging, occasional angry vents as a sign of progress – a change from his normally stoic approach to their every problem. He experienced the relief of not holding on so tightly. They both look forward to a time when feelings and thoughts can be shared between them openly and without too much fear.
  2. 2. Good communication is separate, equal, and open. Good communication is about adopting a stance characterized by 3 qualities: separate, equal, open. When individuals can separate themselves, even just a little, from the emotionally reactive blob of couple-ness, they can start to settle down and respond more from thought – much like they may be able to do with, for example, a work colleague. Working toward separation from this blob in turn generates more of a sense of equality and openness. The two shall become one may be a truism rather than an ideal for couples when it comes to good communication. 
  3. Bad communication is a symptom, not the problem. What is the problem? According to Bowen Theory, the problem has to do with an imbalance between two powerful relationship forces: the force toward togetherness and the force toward individuality. When the relationship togetherness pressure is greater than the ability of each spouse to be separate individuals, communication falls by the way side. It is a matter of too much anxiety or togetherness pressure and too little individuality. Being able to be an individual when the pressure to conform increases is key to improving bad communication.
  4. 4. It’s about the “I” Position – not “I” Statements. Did you see the couple’s absurd application of using “I” statements in the movie clip above? Using “I” statements is a way of thinking – not a technique or formula to apply as if we are in grade school learning how to write sentences. Perhaps a better way of thinking about “I” statements is the “I” position.  An “I” position is a way of being – a lifestyle not a diet. An “I” position is a way of being we develop over a long period of time with sustained focus and effort. It involves increased self-awareness, not only of what principles we live for and live by, but also a self-awareness of how we contribute to the stuck-ness and crises in our relationships. Harriet Lerner does a wonderful job of describing the “I” position in her books. The Dance of Anger or The Dance of Intimacy would be great places to start.
  5. 5. Keep it light. Ever think about why friendships seem so much easier to maintain than marriages? One theory I read about recently – in Roberta Gilbert’s book Extraordinary Relationships – posits that friendships tend to automatically make fun and lightness a priority. When you can cool off some of the emotional reactivity to make a point of having more fun with your spouse, you will go a long way to being able to resolve some of the stickier issues in the relationship. This is not a quick- fix kind of idea. Developing this ability and having it be a more stable aspect of a marriage takes a long time with sustained effort. But if the married couple in This is 40 could have broken down and started laughing at each other and at themselves during this fight, we would all have been laughing with them. Some of us were anyway.

The Peacock and The Maiden

Ever wonder what a peacock would say to his mate if he could speak? A number of ideas and images come to mind.

I was talking to a wife recently whose husband, post divorce, was making dramatic displays of dominance and power. Even though the courts were clearly on her side and the case was settled, she felt small and weak and she cowered. It was the typical pattern of their marriage. When she began to consider that they were equals, that he didn’t have any more power than she did, she began to see his threats and outbursts as much like the stomping, dancing, and feather displays of the peacock. It helped her gain the perspective that he was as much a part of the animal kingdom as she was. This helped her put into context her own submissive, reactive posture. The dominance and submission pattern is one that can be observed everywhere in nature.

Nat'l Audobon Society

Can you see this pattern in your marriage? Or in your divorce? Sometimes the pattern looks more like dominance vs. dominance. What posture do you take? The fact is we are born into families with particular patterns of dominance and submissiveness that are well developed and full of momentum. The majority of the time it’s not about evil or bad intentions; it’s about being a mammal living in a family of mammals. When people can slow down the thinking and feeling process and begin to see, moment-by-moment, the displays of either dominance or submissiveness, they can begin to settle down and not get so taken by it.

Looking One's Best

Of course, understanding patterns is only one step in the process. Nothing changes if action isn’t taken. Sometimes the highest form of action is in-action. Sometimes it is saying and owning one’s “no,” one’s voice, one’s own authority. This thing is bigger than we are – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And it can be helpful to remember that when we’re trying to raze mountains in our relationships.


5 Things To Consider To Improve Your Sex Life


Relationship Advice Through a Broader Lens

Do you find yourself wishing you wanted more sex, but you just can’t get excited about it anymore? Do you find once sex gets started you can enjoy it, but no matter what you try, you just can’t get yourself to initiate it? If you said yes to either question, you are part of a very large pool of married individuals. But what do people do about it other than “just get through” sex or stop having it at all? How do we even define the problem?

Many a physician or pharmaceutical company define the problem as physiological or mental – either hormones are off or you have depression. Many a therapist define the problem as a lack of safety or love. Both of these

approaches have merit, but they do not consider the entire picture, and they may lead couples to dead ends. When people can begin to define the problem in the context of a kind of emotional machine – with multiple moving parts, each one impacting every other – progress becomes more possible.

Here are 5 things to consider when you’ve lost that loving feeling:

  1. Change can’t be forced: You can’t make yourself want to initiate sex, nor can you make yourself enjoy it. It just can’t be done. The vast majority of people have tried everything they know to force the feeling or the action, with little positive or sustainable result. When spouses try to force change – and when it predictably doesn’t work – they easily move into a blaming stance – either of self or other. Consider the wife who, after having tried to get herself to initiate sex for over 20 years, finally gave up. Both she and her husband blamed her for “lack of effort,” but neither considered that trying to force a result actually created its own set of problems. Try taking the stance that forcing change can make seeing other solutions extremely difficult. What would it take for you to let go a bit, step back, stop blaming self or spouse, and consider there’s more to the story?
  2. The Problem Is Not “Low Desire”:  One person having “low desire” is a symptom of an emotional pattern that takes two to perpetuate – the problem being the emotional pattern rather than the “low desire.” Here’s how it works: Emotional systems (families) are governed by emotional forces – kind of like gravity. You can’t see gravity, but you can see and feel the impact of it all around you. Any level of heightened emotion is just such a force. It has a way jumping automatically from one family member to another, squeezing people into one tight pocket or another – often times into locked positions. A common pattern for married couples, for example, has one of you locked into being the one who “always wants sex” while the other is locked into “never” wanting it. But these are simply positions – patterned ways of handling heightened emotion. The trick is to stop defining the problem as one of desire, but rather as a symptom of a much larger emotional machine – one that subtly pressures members into this or that corner. Once you can begin to think of your or your spouse’s stuck-ness as part of a larger pattern, then you can begin to slowly discern what the roles are in that pattern – and which ones you play.
  3. The Role You and Others Play: What is your particular emotional pattern? The most common pattern generally has one person following while the other leads. With sex, this looks like one person subtly or not so subtly holding a stance of “authority” or “knowledge”, a stance of dominance, which can look like either “perpetual desire” or “perpetual low desire.” With one of you as “leader,” the other naturally falls in as “follower,” taking on a stance of “inadequacy” or defensiveness or self-blame which can look like either “perpetual desire” or “perpetual low desire.” Each person gets stuck in an emotionally sticky posture, making it difficult to see the problem from other angles. For example, the person in the more “inadequate” stance perceives the other as having confidence. When looked at more accurately, the one in the more dominant stance has no more real confidence or independence sexually than the “inadequate” one as is marked by his or her constant emotional reactions to the problem – whether those reactions are characterized by avoidance or conflict or desperation or giving up. Both are caught in a reactive pattern – neither one functioning any better than the other, but it often looks like one person is the “healthier” individual. When a person is able to slow an interaction down enough to be able to see each individual’s emotional dependency, the playing field is leveled. Generally a sense of mutuality improves communication and problem solving. This can be a difficult first step but can be helped along by marriage counseling.
  4. Sibling Position of You and Your Spouse: Whether you are an older sister of sisters or a younger brother of brothers (or any other sibling position) has more impact on your life and relationships than you may think. The effects of sibling position and gender play a profound role in personality formation and orientation or stance toward spouse. For example, if an older sister of sisters marries an older brother of brothers, she may experience resentment for his natural orientation to be appreciated for being the lead provider and caretaker of his family. He may experience resentment for her natural orientation to be in charge. Each sibling position has its own personality profile with remarkable accuracy, and each pairing has unique challenges. When people begin to observe their conflicts through this lens, they can begin to strengthen their natural assets and improve their natural limitations or blind spots. For example, an oldest sister of sisters may learn, over time, to slow down, resist her need to be right, and value her spouse’s opinions more evenhandedly. Her oldest brother of brothers spouse may learn, over time, to not be quite as sensitive to the complaints of others, to resist his urge to do for others what they can do for themselves, and to view his counterparts more as equal, contributing members of the family. These kinds of changes can work wonders for a person’s sex life.
  5. The Level of Either Distance, Conflict, or Dependency with Parents and Siblings: And now we come to it. Yes, your current relationship with your family is having an impact on your sex life. The roles we play in our marriages are derivatives of the roles we play with our parents. Gravity reaches into the bedroom despite our best efforts! Consider the middle sister of sisters who, under the parentage of an especially domineering and religious father (who was an oldest brother of brothers) struggled with her admiration of male “strength” and her wish to be granted the legitimacy or validity, generally not afforded her sibling position, but naturally and automatically granted to an oldest sister. Her reactions to her husband, also an oldest brother of brothers, were characteristic of her reactions to her father – belligerent one moment and submissive or dependent the next. Resolving her emotional ambivalence toward her father went a long way in resolving her ambivalence toward her husband (and men in general) and toward her sexual relationship with him.

This last part about resolving relationship stuck-ness with one’s parents is so impactful on peoples’ lives it requires more study. I can recommend Roberta Gilbert’s books: Extraordinary Relationships and The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory as a great place to start.

When it comes to married couples and sex, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Problems in sex tend to take on a life of their own. Emotion just takes over, which makes it more difficult to see and then separate from the patterns you are stuck in. Make an attempt to slow down the thinking and feeling process this week, and consider these 5 points! Then let me know what you learn!