Do you need to hone your communication and problem solving skills to stay married?
Is honing your relationship skills, such as active listening, the best way to hold onto the joy in your relationship? Probably not says a new study by Ronald Rogge of the University of Rochester and his colleagues. This is a pity! After all in all the magic and chaos of love the idea of actually having a technique that will give you some control is appealing. Mostly teaching skills came out of the idea that couples had to learn to stop punishing behaviours and turn on rewarding behaviours if they were going to keep their emotional bank account flush. So just teach them how to do this!!
We have known for years in fact that there is no evidence that happy couples, or even unhappy ones who have learned skills as a solution to distress, actually use these skills in their day to day life. There are also questions about just how unskilled people are to begin with? I am always blown away when distressed partners who constantly break all the rules of good communication in my couple sessions, show exquisitely honed listening and empathy skills with my receptionist. But then she doesn’t hold their heart in her hand. She is pretty safe. My sense is that this is an access problem not an acquisition problem. I have honed my skills over 30 years of practice in psychotherapy but the skilled part of me goes off line when I am in battle mode with my husband.
Perhaps practising “skills” happens on the wrong level. You have to have a certain cognitive distance and awareness of your performance to be skilled, say at dancing tango. Except that you can’t really dance a good tango while you are figuring out the steps in your head! You have to feel the emotion in the music, the beat and tune into your partners moves. I have seen partners following the steps in a skill sequence with deliberation while their partner sits and weeps. He is saying the “right” things but they don’t move her and she feels alone with her emotions. I have also hear partners say, “You don’t mean that. You are just going through the motions to get me to back off. Your face looks really angry.” The skilled responses don’t see real and they don’t always match the nonverbal cues we are sending.
Emotional turmoil scrambles the performance of any “skill”, particularly the turmoil of fear. When your survival is at stake the niceties of communication seem irrelevant. What I and my colleagues usually do with couples in distress is to help people make sense of their turmoil and their fears of being either rejected or abandoned. When partners can name their emotions, we know (Matt Lieberman’s research) that this calms the emotional centers in their brain. When they experience confiding emotions like fear to their lover and having their lover help them with this – soothe them- then all their cognitive and perspective taking skills come back on line. So Matt moves from apparent ignorance to expert in about 8 minutes. It goes like this: “Don’t know. Don’t want to talk. You are too difficult. Forget it”, to “Maybe I get hurt, kind of rejected. Feel like an idiot. Can’t talk,” to “Feel like I am losing you. It freaks me out and scrambles my brain,” to “I need some support here. Give me a chance to come close. I don’t want you to hurt but I need you to stop with the list of flaws. Then I can turn and come to you.”
In Rogge’s study, women perceived declines in emotional support and men and women reported affection had declined even when they and their partner had been taught specifically over 15 hours how to give support and affection. When small children are rewarded with a toy for doing behaviours that are just supposed to feel good anyway, like helping someone, they stop the behaviour. Interesting, maybe if my lover tells me I am special because this is what we learned in the program then it doesn’t feel like it coming from his inner feelings; it seems like it’s about the program he is running, not about me. It feels phoney to him too, so he stops doing it. Love and affection have to be genuine and felt to feel good.
Maybe empathy and openness -feelings of love can be caught but not taught. If we understand love and how vulnerable our lover is to our signals – we can change their heart beat, hormone release and immune functioning in a moment – we are MOVED naturally to feel for them and respond lovingly. We can help lovers change the emotional music of their dance and prime natural feelings of love and compassion.
The truth is, the new science of love tells us that we can have more control over our love relationships – but learning set skills isn’t the way to do it. We have to learn, in real interactions, how to send the heart messages that touch our loved one and move them to care. The results for this one are pretty good. We call it a Hold Me Tight conversation.
You can read about it in Love Sense: The revolutionary new science of romantic relationships.