My article for Mumbai Mirror on how good communication can help a marriage. Much needed in the contemporary world where miscommunication is a ready gift. 

Dev and Pooja, both busy in their careers, decided to spend more time together. One Saturday, pooja tells dev of her plan to go shopping to the mall. “I’ll come along,” says Dev, thinking of the extra time he can get to spend with his wife. However, Pooja’s thoughts are different: “He never lets me do my own thing. I just wanted some time alone.” But she says nothing to dev and is quiet during the entire shopping expedition. Dev takes her silence to indicate that she doesn’t care for his company and he starts getting angry. Pooja reacts to his anger by withdrawing even more.

This case study is only too familiar a ground as far as most couples are concerned. And if you look closely, there are four points to note here:

1) Pooja wanted to spend more time with dev, but on this particular day, she wanted on shop alone.

2) She failed to communicate this desire to Dev.

3) She misinterpreted Dev’s proposal as an encroachment on her freedom.

4) Dev misinterpreted her withdrawal as a sign that she did not enjoy his company.

 Most trouble in marriages can be put down to distorted thinking. How we think determines to a large extent whether we will enjoy life, succeed, or even survive. If our thinking is straightforward and clear, we are better equipped to reach these goals. If it is bogged down by illogical reasoning and misinterpretations, we misjudge and miscommunicate, and inflict pain on both ourselves and our partners, and, in turn, bear the brunt of painful retaliations.

How to sustain the relationship?

Marriage is a relationship that doesn’t come with an instruction manual. It involves living together and committing to a lasting bond. So, compared to other relationships, there is a higher chance of expectations resulting in disappointments. Research by John Gottman, a leading American marital therapist, shows that the success or failure of a relationship can be predicted with 96 per cent accuracy. This is based on the presence or absence of four types of hostile or destructive behaviour:

  1. Criticism: criticism is different from raising a complaint. It is an ad hominem (personal) attack on the partner. For instance, “Why did you come late to the party? Everyone was making fun of me; you are so selfish, you never think of anyone but yourself.”
  2. Contempt: Attacking your partner’s sense of self with the intension to insult or psychologically abuse him/her. For instance, “This meal is pathetic, why don’t you take cooking lessons”. It is fueled by long simmering negative thoughts and attacking the partner from a position of relative superiority. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce, according to Dr Gottman.
  3. Defensiveness: Seeing one’s self as the victim and continuously warding off perceived attack- “You and your family have made my life a living hell.”
  4. Stonewalling: Shutting down and withdrawing as a way to avoid conflict. Rather than confronting the issues (which tend to accumulate!) the person tunes out, turns away, acts busy or engages in meaningless obsessive behaviours.

 Antidotes to defensive reactions

There are two sides to every problem, and how you decide to approach it, often paves the way to how the solution unfolds – or not.

  1. Criticism Vs. Complaint: A complaint addresses a behaviour you want to change. Criticism results in blaming the other person.

Eg: Criticism: “You’re just selfish! You never think of others! You never think of me!”

Complaint: “I felt scared when you were late and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”

  1. Contempt Vs Appreciation: Catch your partner doing something right and tell them you appreciate them for what they are doing. A good rule of thumb is to remember the 5:1 ratio, 5 positive interactions to every 1 negative interaction.
  2. Defensiveness Vs Accepting responsibility: Use the 5% rule: Treat any attack as if 5% of it were true. Ask yourself: “If 5% of what he/she says is true and the rest isn’t, what would the 5% truth be?” React after you figure out what part of your partner’s communication was true, ie. the 5% that’s right.
  3. Stonewalling Vs Managing emotional overwhelm: Withdrawing from conflicts is usually due to emotional overwhelm felt by one of the partners. Take time out, tell your partner you need a break from the conflict discussion. Do something soothing or calming like listening to music, reading a magazine or whatever works for you. Try taking several slow, deep breaths. Assure your partner that you will return to the conversation when you’re both ready. You can disengage from the conversation with a phrase such as: “Let’s take a break…I’m feeling flooded….Let’s leave this for another time when we’re calmer”.

Partners can help themselves, each other, and the relationship if they adopt a “no fault, no blame” attitude. This approach will allow them to focus on the real problems and solve them more readily. Actions by your partner that you attribute to some malicious trait, such as selfishness, hatefulness, or the need to control you, are often due to misguided motives such as self-protectiveness or attempts to prevent abandonment. Understanding this with maturity can help make your marriage stronger. As family therapist Salvador Minuchin says “All marriages are mistakes…some couples are more successful than others in repairing them.

This article first appeared in the Mumbai Mirror on August 22, 2019.