Breaking Bad Communication Habits
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 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 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 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?’
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.