One of the saddest things I see time and time again in my work as a Clinical Psychologist is partners who both love each other and try their best to show this to each other, and yet neither of them feel loved and appreciated. The same thing also happens frequently within families, either between parents and their children or between siblings. In the excellent book, ‘Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well’ by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, they highlight nicely why this often occurs:

Firstly, we are aware of our thoughts, feelings and intentions behind whatever actions we do. The other person is not.  All they can see is what we say, how we say it, and our behaviour or body language. Our body language has been shown to influence approximately 55% of how others interpret and find meaning in what we are saying to them, with 38% being how we say it, and only 7% what we actually say (Mehrabian,1971). Worse still, these non-verbal cues are generally out of our awareness, meaning we don’t see what they see either.

Secondly, we are not able to fully control how our message will be taken in and interpreted by the other person, no matter how precisely we choose our words or actions. This is because how someone understands what we say is based on their past experiences, core beliefs about others or our role (partner, sibling, parent or child), and their expectations and assumptions of what we are like or how we should be. This creates particular biases before we have even opened our mouth, and affects how they are impacted by what we do and say.

Lastly, if we make a mistake or an error or upset someone, we will usually attribute it to the context or situational factors rather than seeing it as something to do with our character (e.g. “I didn’t wash the dishes because I was running late for work”).  Conversely, When others make a mistake or upset us, we often attribute it to a personality characteristic or an unchangeable flaw (e.g. “you didn’t wash the dishes because you are lazy and disrespectful”). What happens next is that we usually criticise their character, which they rightly become defensive over, and they try to explain the context, which we tell them is just an excuse. When our character is being criticised, the opposite happens, and we wonder how they can be so cruel and unforgiving (making further judgments about their character and personality). It’s no wonder that relationships are so tricky.

What can we do?

1. Develop Active Listening Skills

Rather than assume the intent of others based on how they made us feel, it is much better to try and understand their perspective first and show this understanding through the skills of active listening, including:

•  clarifying: asking for more information on what they were talking about

  • “what did you mean by…?”,
  • “can you elaborate further on …?”

• paraphrasing: repeating back what was said to you in another way

  • them: “it’s like 100 degrees outside!”
  • you: “it’s so hot!”

• reflecting: showing that you understand how they felt

  • them: “I had nothing to do all weekend!”
  • you: “you must have been bored!”

 summarising: especially if someone has been speaking for a few minutes on a topic

  • them: multiple stories about the various things that have gone wrong for them recently
  • you: “sounds like you’ve had a rough week!”

Some people will get annoyed if you don’t fully understand them or what they are feeling in the moment, but even this is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the other person and to get better attuned with how they think and feel going forward. Most people will appreciate the effort.

2. Practice Effective Communication

As part of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), Marsha Linehan teaches interpersonal effectiveness skills. She says that if we want to get an objective met when communicating, try the following four steps:

  • D – Describe the situation, and stick to facts, not judgments (e.g.”When you are 30 minutes late”, not “When you are rude and don’t care!”).
  • E – Explain how you feel (Emotions – e.g. “I feel hurt and upset!”. Not opinions – e.g. “I feel like you don’t care at all!”)
  • A – Ask for what you need or would prefer (Behaviours – e.g. “I would prefer that if you are late next time that you either try to leave a bit earlier or text or call to let me know that you are running late”. Not feelings – e.g. “I would prefer if you actually cared about and loved me like you say you do”).
  • R – Reinforce the potential benefits to them, you and the relationship if they could do what you have asked (e.g. “Then you won’t need to rush as much, you’ll be safer on the road getting here, I won’t worry as much, we won’t end up fighting, and we’ll be able to enjoy a great night out together!”).

You might be sceptical, but it really can work, and it does become more comfortable with practice.

3. Avoid the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse

John Gottman, the legendary relationship researcher, claims that he can successfully predict with a 91% accuracy which couples will get divorced in the future after observing them for only five minutes. He says that if you want to avoid a later break-up (the apocalypse), it is essential to prevent the following four things (the four horsemen) that can significantly erode the goodwill of a relationship over time. These are:

  • Criticism: While it is essential to be able to make a complaint about a specific behaviour in a relationship (e.g. “you left the toilet seat up again”), a criticism about who the person is will never be helpful (e.g. “you’re such a slob!”).
  • Contempt: This includes anything that communicates disgust, resentment or looking down upon the other. This may be spoken through hostile humour such as sarcasm, cynicism or name-calling, or displayed through behaviours such as eye rolling, sneering or mocking laughter with the head tilted back. Building a culture of mutual respect and appreciation is the antidote to this.
  • Defensiveness: This is usually in response to criticisms or contempt, and each partner then feels that they are right and the other is wrong and the argument becomes about who is going to win. When each partner is trying to win an argument and blame the other, it is the relationship that suffers in the end. It’s much better to take responsibility for your part, and then work towards what will be best for both of you going forward.
  • Stonewalling: Eventually, after escalating conflict, one partner tries to tune out the other partner, disengaging from the communication or the relationship emotionally while remaining physically present. This is done more by males than females and is a way to calm themselves down when they are feeling emotionally overwhelmed and flooded. The result on the other partner is escalating distress, much like a baby who is suddenly cut off from being able to interact with their mother in the Stillface Experiment.

*To see the full article by Dr Damon Ashworth, please click here.

Books we recommend:

  • Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well” by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
  • The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman
  • The Seven Principles for Making Marriage work Couples Guide for a Better Relationship By John Gottman (The Gottman Institute)

Psychologists we recommend:

View the Inside VCPS podcast here:

Episode 7 – Relationships

Book your appointment