In such a difficult economy, an increasing number of couples are looking for effective strategies to improve, strengthen or even save their marriages, without having to incur the often substantial expense of working with a professional counselor.
There are so many popular books and websites out there offering untested and unprofessional strategies for saving or transforming a marriage. These approaches are often based on the opinions and motives of the author or marketer presenting them, than they are based on solid empirical evidence and counseling research.
When selecting do-it your-self-relationship maintenance learning resources, it’s critical that they be rooted in strong relationship-science. Otherwise such advice can be counterproductive or even harmful to a marriage.
Effective Marital Communication Strategies Are Like Defensive Driving Skills
The importance of learning and implementing proven relationship maintenance skills is very much like the importance of learning and implementing safe driving skills. If we try to drive without first learning to drive, people can and very often do get hurt. Once we learn and practice safe driving, it becomes automatic. We arrive at our intended destinations and we barely needs to think about our driving skills while we do it.
When we learn and practice effective relationship communication and maintenance strategies, they also become automatic and naturally protective. They actually become a part of who we are as a couple. Our destination here is a healthy, resilient and long term marriage.
6 Evidence Based Communication Strategies for Couples
- 1. Scaling is an incredible marital communication strategy that empowers us to quickly and effectively measure our partner’s current levels of emotional satisfaction vs distress in the relationship. Like a thermometer, Scaling lets us take a reliable measure of the emotional temperature of marriage.
To “scale” our relationship quality, we simply ask your partner to score their sense of marital satisfaction by assigning it a number on a scale from 1 to 10.
A score of 1 means the relationship is in serious trouble emotionally, from our partner’s perspective. A score of 10 mean our marriage is as realistically happy and healthy as it has ever been in our partner’s eyes.
Scaling provides real performance data for the action-plan we develop in the ‘Planning” phase of marital communication, in order to get and keep our relationship numbers up in the 7-10 range.
If our relationship numbers stay chronically low (1-4) despite our genuine efforts at applying the next 6 relationship communication and improvement strategies, it’s likely time to seek evidence-based professional counseling.
If there’s partner abuse of any kind or addictions issues contributing to marital distress, partners need to seek out the proper protective and specialized treatment and support resources, rather than trying to repair their marriage alone.
- 2. Listening is one of the most important evidence based relationship communication strategies we have to work with. To genuinely save or transform our marriages we have to learn to how to listen actively in a way that leads to a deepening of our emotional connection and to practical and strategic changes in our reciprocal relationship behavior.
Effective listening in a relationship does 2 important things. First, it surfaces core emotional needs, like the need to feel loved, emotionally safe and to have the sense that we really come before anyone else in our partner’s life.
The best marital therapy research has actually proven that some of the most common sources of marital conflict like issues around sex, money, parenting and in-law conflict often spontaneously resolve when core emotional needs are heard, validated and met. This shocked many behaviorally trained marriage therapists who once thought that the only way to improve a marriage was to help couples create positive behavior changes in areas that were most important to each partner.
Second, once we learn to hear and validate core emotional needs, we then learn to listen for specific secondary needs. This is where the strategic behavior change comes in. This is where we listen for those secondary relationship needs that still haven’t been fully resolved through the emotional listening alone.
These include the unmet relationship needs that couples usually present with when they first come to counseling. They include problems or conflict around parenting, sex money management or even home management issues like the need to share housework, babysitting and dinner making.
Not only do we want to actively listen for those secondary or more practical relationship needs, but we want to listen for specific strategies for getting those needs met as well.
- 3. Planning comes into play once we’ve identified the practical relationship-needs in the listening phase listed above.
In the planning phase the goal is to come up with a specific action-plan or a set of clarified steps for effectively meeting 1 or 2 of our partners clearly expressed relationship needs. It’s very important not to try and meet more than one or 2 of our partner’s relationship needs at a time. This is because making too many behavior changes at once really get difficult to manage and to monitor for continuous improvement through scaling.
The specific action-plan and steps for meeting our partner’s stated relationship needs should come from our partner more than they should come from us. After all who knows our partner’s needs and the best way to meet them then our partner themselves?
- 4. Acting is the phase in which both partners’ commit to and follow through with the simple needs-meeting action plan or plans they’ve developed, in the planning phase.
It actually gets easier and easier to meet our partner’s relationship needs as we see them actively following through with their plan and commitment to meet our needs. It’s called establishing or re-establishing positive behavioral momentum in the relationship.
The use of the ambiguous term “acting” instead of “action-planning” is intentional here. That’s because when couples are experiencing high levels of marital distressed, it’s very important that they “act” in spite of how they feel, in order to really benefit and transform the relationship.
For the relationship improvement process to work, it’s important for both partners to suspend any negative judgment of the extent to which the relationship can be saved or improved. These questions and any negative assumptions can be addressed after a couple of months of active relationship work.
For now, it’s best to stick to your relationship scaling strategy to assess the effectiveness of your partner’s action-plan for meeting your needs and vise-versa. If the scaling number is still too low, do the listening and planning steps again to improve your needs-meeting action-plan and then take action through the newly improved steps.
Repeat these steps until the relationship scaling number is up into the 7-10 range for a good week or 2. You can then revert back to the these relationship communication strategies only when you or your partner feels that your scaling number is getting too low or that it’s staying at a low level for too long.
- 5. Soothing refers back to effectively meeting those core-emotional or “attachment” needs that the best marital therapy approaches available today effectively target. These are the needs to feel fully loved, emotionally safe and that we come before anyone else in our partner’s life.
When we feel genuinely loved and safe, we secrete powerful love chemical in our brain like endorphins and oxytocin, that make us feel a sense of deep emotional pleasure and connection with our partner.
When we feel emotionally threatened (as when we suspect an affair) we secret stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol, which are literally toxic to our emotional, physical and relationship health.
As mentioned earlier, actively listening for, hearing and validating these core emotional needs is a powerful way of soothing our partner and reconnecting with them at a very deep emotional level.
Non sexual touch is also a powerful soothing strategy that can really help us to expand and deepen our emotional connection. When we see that our partner is emotionally distressed, it’s very helpful to hug, touch, snuggle or even to offer them a 20 minute relaxing message to help, soothe calm and relax them.
Remember, the most effective relationship communication and maintenance strategies work best when they are done mutually and reciprocally.
Verbal criticisms actually disguise poorly expressed, unheard and therefore unmet core relationship needs. When we learn to effectively express and hear each other’s emotional needs and to soothe each other when we do feel distressed, it naturally triggers our “instinct” to comfort and take care of each other.
- 6. Relaxing is another incredibly important marital-communication strategy. This is because the best available relationship science has clearly shown that couples can’t communicate when they are upset or emotionally “flooded.”
In marital communication, we often get angry or emotionally-flooded because our attachment needs have been chronically frustrated. First we get sad and or anxious when these needs go unmet for too long. Then we get mad as a primitive way of trying to defend ourselves emotionally and to get those core-needs met.
When we’re angry or frustrated with our partner, the anger actually causes a drop in our I.Q. To put it simply, anger makes us “dumb”. The angrier we get the “dumber” we get. Dumb people simply can’t hear and meet each other’s core relationship needs. But they are very good at making things worse.
The best way to get and stay “smart” during marital problem-solving is to take a physical communication break as soon as we start to feel ourselves getting frustrated or angry. Anger blocks us from expressing the underlying hurt and fear we that we most need to express in order to receive effective soothing from our partner.
The best way to quickly relax ourselves when we get emotionally flooded is to practice and master the “relaxation response”. We can master the relaxation response in as little as a month through 20 minutes of daily practice. One of the best times for distressed couples to practice their relaxation, is right at that moment when they begin to feel flooded. Talk about turning a relationship-harming negative into a relationship-transforming positive!
Some of the best relaxation techniques to learn in order to drastically improve your marital communication around hot-button issues include:
1) Progressive, Muscle relaxation;
2) Diaphragmatic breathing; and,
A person who has taken the time to master the relaxation response can self-induce a state of total relaxation in as little as 5-10 seconds! Again, to really enjoy the incredible benefits of this kind of emotional self-control in our relationships, it takes regular practice at first. The ability to get and stay calm will really improve your ability to effectively implement all of the evidence-based marital communication strategies presented in this article.
- 7. Praising is the icing on the cake of evidence-based marital communication strategies. Some of the best relationship-science confirms that in healthy, long lasting marriages, couples say at least 4 positive or supportive statements for every negative statement. It’s so easy to get into the habit of being overly negative and critical when our core-relationship needs are going unmet.
Positive or supportive statements are the nice things we say to our partners. They include complements and statements of gratitude. The most effective, relationship changing positive statements are purely genuine. They reflect and describe our partner’s positive relationship behaviors, like showing affection or helping out with parenting or housework.
Positive statements are also descriptive of our partner’s positive traits and attributes. They describe things like our partner’s helpfulness, thoughtfulness, innate beauty and goodness as a person.
Not only do frequent and descriptive positive and supportive statements make us feel good, they also help us (and our partner) to follow through with and sustain the positive changes in relationship behavior that are developed in the listening, planning and acting phases described earlier.
Applied together and in sequence, Scaling, Listening, Planning, Acting, Soothing, Relaxing and Praising, represent 7 of the most, effective, synergistic and high-leverage, of the available evidence-based marital communication strategies. Most couples can easily learn, practice and benefit from these strategies in the comfort of their own homes.