June 13, 2011

Couples Communication: Assertiveness with Empathy

Sheep Herd Tapestry 

The conception of two people living together for twenty-five years 
without having a cross word suggests a lack of spirit 
only to be admired in sheep.  
-Alan Patrick Herbert, English writer and Member of Parliament

Most all of us understand that constant bickering, arguing, and loud shouting matches are not healthy for relationships.  But what too few people understand is that the opposite is not healthy either.  Any longtime partnership, be it love or work, will involve conflict.  And conflict necessitates talking it out.

John Gottman, PhD and his research team have found* that couples who seldom argue, conflict avoiders as he calls them, are at high risk to break up.

Couples therapy almost always involves learning and practicing assertive communication skills.  In my couples work and individual therapy I encourage assertiveness with empathy as one form of resolving conflict.

This will probably take you by surprise but I don't like going to the same restaurants all the time. I know they are your favorites but I'd like to try something new. What do you think? 

Text in red denotes statements of empathy or showing that you understand and care about the other person's viewpoint.

Using empathic statements helps make assertiveness more successful.  Helps the partner you are communicating with feel heard, more at ease, understood, rather than attacked. Helps the partner be more open to your suggestions.

I know you like for me to do the laundry but I want to change things up.  I want do my own and you do your own from now on. I've gotten busier at work and don't have as much free time as I used to.  You may not know how, but I can show you this weekend if you'd like.

Can you think of a complaint you have aimed at your partner that you can turn into an assertive, empathic request?

*Gottman, John M.; Krokoff, Lowell J., Marital interaction and satisfaction: A longitudinal view. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 57(1), Feb 1989, 47-52. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.57.1.47

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