In Session 6, we noted that communicating is the essence of relating. Research confirms that good communication cultivates satisfying intimacy, and likewise that poor communication creates dissatisfaction. Clinical psychologist John Gottman has devoted his career to understanding what it takes to make a happy marriage. His research has focused on behavioral differences between happy and unhappy couples. Gottman and his colleagues have consistently found that the quality of communication determines whether partners feel satisfied or dissatisfied with their relationships. Analyzing thousands of hours of videotape of spouses' conversations has yielded three major types of miscommunication and several common examples of each.

For each example below, consider whether this sounds like anything you regularly do or have done:

  1. Not saying what you mean
    1. Kitchensinking: When voicing a complaint to your partner, you cite several problems at once, listing "everything but the kitchen sink" --

      "It's not just that you don't do your share of the housecleaning. You make my work harder by being careless and sloppy. You don't put things away. You watch TV all evening. And you never talk to me any more."

      NOTE: If kitchensinking is a habit, you save up resentments and unspoken criticisms in a process called gunnysacking. If your partner forgets your birthday or fails to fix the leaky faucet, you pretend to forgive it while actually memorizing the occasion so you can bring it up during some future altercation.

    2. Drifting Off-Beam: When listing too many topics of complaint, you lose track and shift focus to entirely different areas of concern, so no single problem can be addressed:

      "You say you're willing to do more around here, but I've got to be the one to remind you to do it. It's like your mom always nagging your father. No wonder she's so grouchy all the time. I don't enjoy visiting your family, and I definitely don't want to spend the holidays with them this year, not after what happened last year."

  2. Not hearing or listening to each other
    1. Mindreading: Instead of making sure you understand your partner, you assume you know what he or she means or is trying to say --

      "You said that about my mother just so you could hurt my feelings. You're still mad at me for criticizing you in front of your friends. Well, I already apologized for that. How often are you going to bring this up?"

    2. Interruptions: When you are unhappy, you interrupt your partner not to ask useful questions but to disagree or change the subject --

      X: "I told my brother we could stay with them when we visit the city next month --"

      Y: "We already discussed this, we can't afford to. And even if we could, I don't want to go to Arkansas and you know it!"

    3. Yes-Butting: You say "yes, but..." or pretend to agree only to introduce yet another complaint.

      "Yes, well I already tried to do that and it took all afternoon. I can't afford the time off work; not everyone can just take time off like you can, you know."

    4. Cross-complaining: Each partner engages in a dialogue of non-listening, waiting turns to bring up his or her gripe, and contributing to a sense of numerous problems and bad feeling. Since no complaint is addressed, the problems and resentment persist --

      X: "You made a mess in the bathroom, and I was late for work after cleaning up."

      Y: "Well, you loaded the dishwasher wrong, and I had to do them all over."

  3. When talking, expressing negative affect (hostile feelings) most of the time
    1. Personal Criticism: As shown in several of the preceding examples, complaints focus not on the partner's specific behavior but on the partner's personality or character --

      "You are such a slob, leaving your towels all over the bathroom like that."

    2. Contempt: ou express dislike and disrespect for your partner.

      "A slob like you, I'm surprised you even have a job. You're late every morning, no wonder you rush around and wreck the bathroom. Always leaving someone else to clean up after you!"
Before you panic and realize you've done all these things some of the time, remember: it's a matter of degree! The researchers point out that even happy couples do these things. The difference is that unhappy couples do them consistently, frequently, or intensely. When communication itself becomes a negative experience, partners quit engaging in it -- and soon are no longer partners.

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