Trina Dolenz

Trina Dolenz

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Breaking Bad Communication Habits

Breaking Bad Communication Habits

I often see couples who are stuck in a communication rut and don’t know why. Repeatedly they are having the same arguments over and over again, or have even just stopped talking as they have now given up trying. 

Couples I have worked with have found an understanding of Transactional Analysis helpful in getting them out of their deadlock. So I though I’d share a simplified version with you.

Eric Berne first coined the term Transactional Analysis in his best selling book Games People Play which is a study of communication patterns and interactions between individuals.

The TA Trinity

The basic premise of this theory, which I’ll refer to as TA from now on, is that we have three internal states (known in TA as ego-states) to our personality. These are the Parent, Child and Adult.

The Parent

The parent ego state is behaviour learnt from our own parental figures. It can be either critical or nurturing. A critical parent might say, ‘You always forget to take out the rubbish, you’re so useless.’ Whereas a nurturing parent might say, ‘Don’t worry about the rubbish, I’ll take it out for you.

The Child

The child ego state replays feelings experienced in childhood. It can be expressed as either adapted (shaped by childhood experience) or free. An adapted child might say, ‘I’m sorry, I always forget to take out the rubbish, I’m always messing up.’ Whereas the free child might something like, ‘Boring! I hate taking out the rubbish, I’m too busy.’

The child state is seen as the source of fun, creation and imagination, but also the most impulsive and emotional state, carrying all the feelings of love, joy, hate, fear, sadness, anger, shame etc.

The Adult

The adult ego state is the state we try to develop in therapy. It is the most rational and non-threatening state and avoids judgment or criticism. The adult might say, ‘The bin men are coming tomorrow, do you have time to take out the rubbish?’

Getting Stuck

We all have access to these three states in our personalities, but problems can arise when we get stuck in certain patterns of communication that are ineffective in our relationships. To demonstrate how this might work, let’s take Sarah and Harry*:

Sarah feels Harry doesn’t take any responsibility in the house and takes on the critical parent ego state. Harry in turn feels attacked and takes on the adapted child ego state, reacting to her from that place.

Sarah: ‘Harry, I’m so tired of you doing nothing to help around the house, you’re such a waste of space!’
Harry: ‘I’m sorry, I know, I’ll try harder to help you out.’
Sarah: ‘I’m so tired of it, I can’t rely on you to do anything.’
Harry: Says nothing and tears form in his eyes.
Sarah: ‘Oh there you go again, turning on the waterworks. I’m so fed up of it.’

Over time they unwittingly become locked into this pattern of communicating and are unable to come up with solutions together. Both of them end up feeling alone and disconnected as a result.

Adult to Adult

In counselling we would work towards an adult-to-adult interaction where we would help couples like Sarah and Harry to learn how to negotiate getting tasks done.

A more adult-to-adult interaction might look like this:

Sarah: ‘Harry, when you have some time, please could you help me out with some tasks around the house.’
Harry: ‘Sure, perhaps you could write a list and we can sit down and work out how to divide up the chores a bit better.’
Sarah: ‘Thanks Harry, I really appreciate it. That would really take some of the pressure off me.’

In this way, Sarah gets the help she is really asking for and Harry feels valued and able to help her. Through adult-to-adult interactions they are able to stay connected and work together.

What about you?

Can you identify with any of these ego states and communication patterns?

Perhaps when you get angry, you have learnt to take a critical parent ego state and scold your partner, or perhaps you take the position of the free child that rebels in response?

Or are you the adapted child that tries to pacify your partner, but over time you lose your voice in the relationship and become unhappy?

Or maybe you both take on critical parent ego states, that creates escalating drama and as a result you never manage to resolve your issues?

Break the pattern

Becoming aware of how we talk to each other can be key to unlocking the painful cycles that couples become trapped in.

By identifying our patterns, we can start to make consciously different choices in the way we communicate with each other.

Your feelings are valid, but perhaps it’s the way you are expressing them that is causing the problem. If we can work towards finding the ‘adult-to-adult’ in our interactions, we can also work towards better outcomes in our relationships.

Some Light Reading

Counselling For Toads by Robert de Board is a fantastic book if you are interested in learning more about Transactional Analysis. It’s a really easy read because it’s fiction with TA worked into the story.

De Board takes Kenneth Grahame’s famous character, Toad of Toad Hall from The Wind in the Willows and tells us how Toad suffers from depression and works with Heron, a TA counsellor. Through the story Toad shares his feelings and learns to develop his emotional intelligence with the help of Heron and the theories used in TA.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Should I be worried?

My partner isn't having a physical affair, but is very close to someone else. Should I be worried?
An emotional affair has three features.
  • Secrecy, either about the existence of a friendship, or the interactions that take place.
  • Physical chemistry and attraction.
  • When the friend knows more about your primary relationship than you know about this friendship.

Emotional affairs like all affairs, are increasing because of the social context in which we live. We spend a lot of our time at work with colleagues, we travel away from home and we have mobile phones, messenger applications, social networking sites and E-mails. We have individual friendships.
Emotional affairs usually start with a friendship that has “crossed the line”. By this it is meant that the boundaries around that friendship, that prevented it from posing a threat to your primary relationship, have become blurred over time. Emotional infidelity occurs when your partner starts exchanging intimacies and secrets with a friend, that they would normally share with you.

If your partner wouldn’t have wanted you to hear or see these interactions, a line was crossed. If there was also secrecy involved and physical attraction, there was a high risk that this emotional affair would have evolved into a combined affair, where both physical and emotional infidelity occurred.

Not every emotional affair will lead to physical infidelity. For some individuals, there is a boundary that they won’t breach. If your partner decided to end the friendship and has taken the risk to tell you about what has happened, there is a good chance that the relationship would not have progressed further. Although you are bound to feel hurt, listen to what your partner is saying and take comfort from the fact that they stepped back from the brink of a combined affair and showed sufficient investment in your relationship to be honest about it. As with all affairs, try to see this as a joint opportunity to find out why it happened.

If on the other hand, the emotional affair has ended because of discovery, or because the other party has withdrawn, your partner needs to be as honest as they can about the likely progress of the friendship. Most people in this situation would like to think that they would not have been physically unfaithful, but this can be a comforting self-delusion.

An emotional affair can be as painful for all parties as a physical, or combined affair. It is a mistake to minimize the hurt feelings and loss of trust, but with hard work and a willingness to uncover the reason why it happened and agreeing future boundaries for safe friendships, a couple can build a stronger relationship in its wake.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I can't seem to stop arguing with my partner

I can't seem to stop arguing with my partner. What can we do
Although they can be painful and unpleasant arguments are common in all kinds of relationships. But disagreements don't have to end in hostile silence or a screaming match. Learning ways of handling discussions on emotive topics and looking out for the patterns and triggers in your arguments can really help you improve the situation.
Find out why you argue
Think about what you're really arguing about. On the surface it could be about money, sex, housework, disciplining children or other family matters. But question what you are really arguing about? You could compare an argument to an onion; the outer layer is the issue you are actually talking about, deeper layers represent other areas, and understanding these can help you work out why rows sometimes escalate out of all proportion to the original problem.
It might help you to think about your physical feelings, stress or tiredness can intensify a fight. Or think about how other people's input might fuel your anger.
When you can't stop arguing If your conflict is rooted in intractable problems, it may be hard, or even impossible, to alter the pattern. If you recognise any of these factors, you need to find support and help, whether from friends, family or getting in touch with a therapist.
  • Your lives are moving in totally different directions.
  • Alcoholism, drug addiction or other problems feature in your relationship.
  • One of you is having an affair.
  • One of you no longer loves the other, or has actually decided to leave.
One of the most serious outcomes of arguing is when a couple comes to blows or one partner physically attacks another. If physical violence is a feature of your relationship, you need to seek help urgently. The national Domestic Violence Helpline website has information, help and support for anyone affected by domestic violence.
How you argue
There are as many ways of having an argument as there are couples who argue. Some common and highly destructive patterns are:
  • Stonewalling: total withdrawal and refusal to discuss the issue. Partner feels unvalued and unheard.
  • Criticism: Commenting negatively on the other's behavior, over and above the current problem. 'You're always so forgetful.' Partner feels attacked and threatened.
  • Contempt: Sneering, belligerence or sarcasm. 'You think you're so clever.' Partner feels humiliated and belittled.
  • Defensiveness: Aggressively defending and justifying self to partner. 'You haven't got a clue just how much I have to remember every day.' Partner feels attacked. Row escalates.
Changing the way you tackle rows Think about the ways you and your partner argue, then think about how you would like to change these. Notice how easily you slip into familiar routines of arguing, almost without thinking. Talk this over with your partner if you can, but if that feels too difficult, go ahead and start changing away. Your partner's reactions will alter in response to yours.
Aim for a 'win-win' style of disagreeing, where no one feels they've lost. This will let both partners:
  • outline their own needs
  • listen to each other's needs
  • talk flexibly about solutions that give each of them enough of what they want.
Six steps to handling arguments constructively
  • If you want to raise a tricky topic with your partner, start the discussion amicably. Don't go in with all guns firing, or with a sarcastic or critical comment. For instance, in the example of overspending, say, 'Can we talk about the credit card bill - we need to work out a spending limit that suits us both', not, 'I'm furious about that bill - why do you go over the top every time?'
  • Try to understand your partner's reactions, and remember that you are not just arguing about the 'surface' problem. If your partner says, 'Just let me take care of the money, will you', remember that perhaps in their childhood their role model controlled all household affairs. It will need careful and sensitive negotiation, over a period of time, to alter this pattern of expectations.
  • Respect your partner's views, even if you are annoyed. Instead of saying, 'I'm not a child!' try, 'I know it's important to you to feel able to spend as and when you like, but I need to have a say in how our money is used, too'.
  • Take responsibility for your own emotions. Why you are so upset? Has something from the past been stirred up by this latest row? Do you fear loss of control in other aspects of your life? Saying, 'You make me so angry...' places the blame for your feelings squarely on to your partner. Yes, his or her behaviour may have triggered your feelings, but their depth may have little to do with the current problem.
  • Keep tabs on physical feelings, which warn you if you are close to losing control. A knot in the stomach, breathlessness, tears, all spell trouble. Leave the room, and take time to calm down.
  • Be prepared to compromise. Often the only way to reach a win-win solution is for both partners to give some ground. Don't stick rigidly to your desired outcome. Check out what your partner wants to achieve - don't take it for granted that you already know. Then tell him or her what it is you are hoping for, and explore different possibilities together until you reach a solution that both are happy with.
Future rows
These techniques really do work, and can produce major changes. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean that you will never have another bad row. If it happens, look at what went wrong, think about how you could have handled it better, and aim to do better next time. Then forgive yourself, and your partner, and move on.