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June 2010
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Communication That Heals

Books about relationships continue to be written, and relationship experts will always be in high demand on radio and TV— and with good reason. The divorce rate in America is 54.8% 2nd in the world only to Sweden, which has a divorce rate of 54.9%. Switzerland and Poland’s rate is about 25%, Canada 37%, Germany, Norway, and the UK around 40%. India’s divorce rate is 1.1%, Sri Lanka 1.5% and Japan 1.9%.

It’s quite a spectrum, with the American divorce rate slowly increasing. Why marriages are a 50:50 proposition in America, but only 1% in India does not have a simple answer. Our high divorce rates call for a transformation in how couples communicate.

Causes of Divorce

There are a variety of reasons that communication and marriage fail:

1) The nuclear family has broken down, leaving more and more children raised in less than ideal circumstances. Families are often scattered to the four corners of the country. These changes don’t provide children with a positive image or experience of marriage.

2) Over the last 40 years, marital role expectations have changed dramatically, and many people truly do not know how they fit in to their own marriage, what the expectations are, and what those roles will look like.

3) In a partnership of any kind, each brings something to the table. If there is a very large gap in what is being brought to the table, there are extra hurdles to jump over. Frequently, there is an imbalance on a very practical level.

When people fall in love, they change mentally, emotionally, and sometimes spiritually. In the glow of being “in love,” we do not see the other’s flaws. They appear perfect to us, and that is a big problem, because the “being in love” state will come under the pressure of reality. After 12 to 18 months, people begin to see those quite normal flaws, which throws many people for a loop. They need to make some internal shifts and learn how to communicate during heated moments and times of conflict.

The chemistry of “in love” almost always changes, and at that point, a couple really needs to learn to love. Most couples don’t have the tools to communicate well, to express differences and painful emotions. Today we’ll focus on learning to communicate in a way that heals and unites.

Learning to Communicate for the First Time

1. Startup. The first thing for you to identify is whether or not you create a “fast startup” in dealing with things that feel difficult to say. If your style is to express hurt or anger in a way that is loud and heated, the conversation will rapidly accelerate and the conversation will turn into an argument. If your style is a fast startup, take a few deep breaths before tossing gasoline on a fire.

2. Develop Ground Rules for how you communicate strong emotions. Here is a good way to start the conversation. Tell your partner that there is something you’d like to talk about, and ask, “Is this a good time?” If it’s not a good time, agree on a time that is good for both of you, but not a time that is a week away. Make yourselves comfortable before starting. Sit on a couch or comfortable chairs. If you’re not boiling over, make physical contact. Hold hands. Make eye contact.

3. How Severe Is The Problem? At first your partner doesn’t know if you’re going to talk about an affair, divorce, or a disagreement about some groceries you just purchased. Before opening your mouth, ask yourself how serious your concern is on a scale of 1–10. If you can say to your partner, “This issue is a 3,” s/he will instantly feel relief, even before the information is shared. If the issue for you is a 7–10, share that, and then ask your partner if they’d like a minute to get centered, to close their eyes, breathe, pray or meditate. It’s your job to help create a safe space.

Consider how much easier it is to hear something painful when you’ve taken a minute to get centered compared to when you are blind-sided by hot, raw emotion. In the latter situation, you’re not prepared or centered, and so you are much more likely to be defensive and contribute to a fast startup. This new approach takes practice at first and may sound contrived. However, this technique works and leads to conflict resolution.

4. Do Not Make Assumptions: No One Is Wrong. So many of us get into arguments because we treasure being right. Would you rather be right, at the cost of losing a great relationship? If you think you’re right and your partner is wrong, the discussion will be one of blame. You will basically be “trying your case” to prove s/he is wrong. One of the 4 agreements (Don Miguel Ruiz’s book) is “Don’t make assumptions.” Do not assume (ever) that you know another person’s motivation.

If you feel your partner hurt you, do not assume that you know his or her motivation for certain words or actions. When you truly give your partner the chance to speak, they will almost always have a reasonable explanation. When someone feels hurt, it is common to believe that your partner intended to hurt you. Most of the time, that is not the case.

Most of the time, when you share your emotions, your partner will feel your pain and may be shocked, because his or her intentions had nothing to do with hurting you. Be open to your partner’s motivation, and hear out their full explanation.

5. Share How You Feel. You may feel angry or scared. You may have concluded that the prince or princess you married has an evil twin living inside. Here is how to convey what you need to. Take responsibility for how you feel. If you say, “You really pissed me off with that absurd comment,” you’re conveying the message that your feelings are your partner’s responsibility. But, you are responsible for how you respond to anything.

To keep things simple, remember that our core emotions are mad, glad, sad, or scared. Here’s a healthy way to communicate your distress, “When you said or did x, y, and z, it caught me off guard. At first I was scared, and I felt my gut tighten up. My hands were sweaty. I was shaking. Pretty quickly fear turned to anger. I feel that anger right now. My heart’s pounding, my palms are sweaty. I’m getting angry thinking about what happened.”

When you communicate this way, you are taking responsibility for your response, and you’re not making your partner wrong or blaming them for how you feel. If you start off blaming him or her, ready to prove them wrong, the conversation will quickly escalate. The words will start flying faster. The idea that the two of you are trying to solve a problem “together” will be lost.

6. The Response. Don’t go on and on for 15 minutes without letting your partner respond. You do need time to share how you feel right now and how you felt during “the incident.”

Remember that healthy communication arises when both of you have agreed on creating a safe space for challenging emotions to be expressed. Now, you really really want to listen. Right?

You want to let your partner respond, both to your emotion and to the event that set you off. Be eager to discover their motivation and what they thought they said or did, because what you think motivated your partner IS ALMOST NEVER true.

In this way, the emotions and recall of the event can safely be expressed, and you can cool things down. Both of you will feel understood if you are both coming from a place of love without blame.

7. Be Open and Vulnerable. Part of why people continue to express hurt, fear, and anger in destructive ways is because they fear being vulnerable. People who need to be in control find it difficult to let go into this kind of healing communication.

Being vulnerable also means that you are willing to accept and embrace uncertainty. You do not know what the conversation will hold, how it will progress, and how it will resolve. Uncertainty arises after you’ve told your story and shared your emotions.

Your partner has responded, and at some point, you will realize that you were not 100% right. After the initial phase of communicating, there may be silence. That’s because both of you have given up the idea that you really understood what happened, why you responded the way you did and, what your partner’s perspective is.

The love begins to creep back in, and along with it, silence may set it. A lot of people are afraid of silence, and so they spend their lives talking, talking, talking in order to fill in every moment.

The fact is that the ability to hang in there together...with moments or minutes of silence is profoundly healing and transformative.

8. Avoid Premature Closure. You don’t usually need to resolve conflict by talking for hours, but there is a subtle pitfall to avoid. Moving from fear and anger back to love is great, but don’t move to the bedroom too quickly. At this point in your conversation, which is approaching closure, you may feel the urge to quickly hug and kiss your partner. Slow down.

At this point in the process, hold hands with more intention and love. If you try to move to making love too quickly, you may be avoiding some part of the process. I do believe, however, that it’s important, if at all possible, not to go to bed angry.

By communicating in this open, vulnerable, non-blaming way, you are both learning to accept what is. You’re not trying to change each other. ’When you accept what is, you become transparent and more lovable. You are striving to relate and not control.

Some of the more difficult conversations might be around what you want, or feeling that certain needs are not being met. Ask freely for what you want without inhibiting yourself. You won’t get what you want if you don’t ask. When you are open with your emotions and desires, it keeps the energy flowing between the two of you.

Some people are very well suited to each other in a practical way. They have similar energy levels, spiritual beliefs, political beliefs, interests, activities, hobbies, sexual preferences, and much more. If you are not a good fit, in a practical way, don’t conclude that, “She is incapable of giving me what I really want.”

State your needs, including perhaps your fear of expressing your needs. After you have shared in the way you have just learned, you’ll be able to meet in the middle.

Your partner may not be able to give you 100% of what you want, but if you communicate with love and respect, you’ll find a solution that works for both of you. Compromise!

9. Closure. Ask if there is anything else your partner wants to say or do. Likewise, ask yourself if there is anything else that needs to be said. Bring the conversation to an end in a loving way. You’ve survived a conversation that used to be a battle, and now you are truly a healthier couple.

Express your gratitude to each other. In your “opening comments” you may have said a lot of things that felt hurtful to your partner.

Do not end the conversation without telling your partner a number of things you love about them. You may also want to start the conversation with words of love and gratitude.

Return to gratitude as you come to closure. You are now in a more open, vulnerable, loving space or mood. Don’t overthink the conversation. There is a time for kissing, touching, and making love...and now is a good time.

Whenever you find yourself thinking negatively about your partner, catch the negativity and begin thinking of things about your partner that you are grateful for.

When you switch from anger and blame to gratitude, your entire being will shift quickly. By the time you next see your partner, you are much more likely to see that person with loving eyes and heart, instead of repeatedly asking yourself, “How did my prince turn into a frog?’

David Gersten, M.D. practices Nutritional Medicine and Integrative Psychiatry out of his Encinitas office and can be reached at 760-633-3063. Please feel free to access 1,000 on-line pages about holistic health, amino acids, and nutritional therapy at and