“We’re not who we used to be… we’re just two ghosts standing in place of you and me,” sings Harry Styles, describing in aching tones what it’s like to be with your lover and feel as though you don’t even know them anymore. If this describes your relationship then it’s no doubt been a while since you felt heard. But it’s not too late. I talk to couples all the time standing at the crossroads wondering if they can make their marriage work or if they’re fated to be unhappy forever. My answer is a resolute YES it’s possible to make it work and you don’t have to stay unhappy… but it does take effort.
According to the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, the average couple waits 2.8 years after serious problems to begin therapy. In my opinion, that’s too long to wait to give your most important relationship the attention it deserves. Professor and researcher Paul Amato at Pennsylvania State University found that “when couples stick together through difficult times, remain faithful to one another, and actively work to resolve problems, positive long-term outcomes (while not guaranteed) are common… and spouses that use relationship education services have better relationship quality and more stable marriages than do other couples.”
Any marriage can benefit from couples counseling, but especially one that is in trouble. It’s easier for a therapist, neutral to the history of the relationship, to detect and diagnose the causes of conflict and the obstacles that shut down communication. A therapist can teach you adaptive skills and coach you through difficult conversations, creating a safe space to express your deepest fears and feelings.
In my work I educate couples on how to communicate using the Gottman Speaker/Listener technique. This technique can be used anytime, but it is especially helpful when conversations get heated or the subject matter is sensitive. It boils down to partners who take turns speaking and listening, talking in ways that feel safe so neither partner gets defensive or worries they’ll be cut off or criticized. The advantages are decreased conflict and increased trust and understanding.
Here’s how it works: Take turns speaking while the other listens and then paraphrases what the speaker said.
1. When the Speaker has the floor, the Listener waits to speak. You may want to use an object, like a pen, to pass between you in order to designate the Speaker.
2. Take turns sharing the floor.
3. Don’t immediately problem-solve, focus on understanding your partner and having a good discussion.
Rules for the Speaker:
1. Speak from your own feelings and don’t try to read your partner’s mind. Use “I” statements to express your point of view.
2. Be brief. Share turns often. You’ll have time to say everything you want to say as the conversation continues.
3. Stop talking to let the listener paraphrase. Help your partner understand your point of view and if the paraphrase isn’t quite right, politely state what you meant.
Rules for the Listener:
1. Paraphrase what you heard. Repeat back what your partner said, trying to understand the feelings within the message. (Use phrases like: What I hear you saying is… or If I understand you right…)
2. Focus on the speaker’s message. Don’t give your opinions. Your job is to listen and understand what your partner is saying.
This technique can transform conversations that used to end in conflict to new opportunities to connect. For an example of Speaker/Listener, click on this uTube link and watch James and Ladios learn how to communicate using these techniques.
Using Speaker/Listener even 60% of the time has the potential to improve your relationship but it’s just one of many tools a Gottman trained therapist can help you learn. Other tools include skills to build friendship, prevent conflict, increase intimacy, and create shared meaning. With research-backed tools and proven methods, a Gottman-trained therapist may have you forgetting Harry’s sad lyrics and opting to “remember how it feels to have a heartbeat.”
Doherty, W. J., Harris, S. M., Hall, E. L., & Hubbard, A. K. (2021). How long do people wait before seeking couples therapy? A research note. Journal of marital and family therapy, 47(4), 882–890. https://doi.org/10.1111/jmft.12479