Regardless of the many reasons for which couples might come to therapy, there is a singular emphasis on the one topic that they have in common: communication. From the disclosure of an affair, the “we’re just roommates” situation or the feeling that the spark has left the relationship, communication is the bridge and foundation of every good and bad place to which a marriage may venture.
More often than not, couples feel lost in their quest to find the right words to say, or how to respond to their partner’s needs and wants. It can feel like an exercise in futility when you are trying to navigate the innumerable Google paths for the right tools and exercises to use as a couple. There is also a multitude of self-help books and online gurus pointing you in a thousand directions. Who is right? Who has the perfect recipe?
It’s confusing, and unfortunately, most of the self-help material out there is anecdotal. I hear many stories about people trying what worked for other couples and then inevitably feeling bad about themselves or their marriage because it didn’t work for them. Every relationship is going to be a little different from the next, so your communication will be viewed, interpreted, and assessed differently.
What worked perfectly with one friend will not necessarily work with another. The communication you have with your spouse is arguably going to be one of the most important factors in your life. And depending on the level of positivity or negativity it will directly affect your other relationships. So without further ado, I want to talk about two simple exercises that I have couples do both in and out of therapy to help foster and enhance healthy communication.
I want you to imagine a couple standing in the kitchen, it’s around 8:00 pm and the kids have been sent to their rooms for the night. As you look through the kitchen window you see that they look angry. They are raising their arms and making dramatic gestures with their hands.
The wife looks tired and frustrated and you see her put her hands in the air as if to say, “What do you want from me?” Meanwhile, the husband is leaning on the oven with a hand over his face. Maybe he is crying? Maybe he is exhausted? He certainly looks defeated. He is slouched and looks like a small breeze would blow him over.
Can you see the couple in your mind’s eye? There is a lot to see from this vantage point, even though you cannot hear any of the words that are being said. What if I told you that 65% of communication is non-verbal? In long term relationships, we tend to focus so intently on the content that is being delivered that we fail to take any thoughtful consideration of how our bodies are conveying the information.
This is not the case when we just meet someone or when we are dating our future spouse. In the initial stages of a relationship, we focus a lot more of our energy on the implicit messages the person is sending as well as our own non-verbal messages.
We are nervous and very mindful of the way we behave, talk, and respond to new people. Especially, when we are romantically attracted to them. But as more sand passes through the hourglass, we become less aware of our own non-verbals but feel free to use their non-verbals as weapons against them.
“Don’t roll your eyes at me,” or “Why do you always shrug your shoulders like that? I hate it!” Have you have heard something similar in your house? This leads me to the first exercise I have couples do with one another, and it’s called “Mirror Fighting.”
Because couples tend to lose sight of their own non-verbals it is important that they spend a little time reflecting on them. In a mirror. This might sound silly or stupid, but think about all the times you have had a conversation with yourself in the mirror. This is just a natural extension of that.
The idea is that the next time you and your spouse are beginning to have a disagreement or find yourselves on the edge of arguing with one another you take it to the mirror. It is important that each person try as hard as they can to not look at their partner, but focus on their own face. This will feel very strange and there will be an urge to stop the exercise and resume the argument face to face.
The key is to prolong this urge and fight through the discomfort. There is only one person in charge of your non-verbals and it is you. The Mirror Fighting exercise is designed for people to become proactive in their non-verbal facial movements, where too many times people are only reactive. We see something we don’t like and our face cringes or we hear something annoying and we roll our eyes.
We have the ability to demonstrate empathy, understanding, pity, anger, or surprise without saying a word. When we are neutral and relaxed in our non-verbals we give our partner a chance to feel safe when they talk and we begin the process of healthy communication without speaking a word.
This is an abridged version of the Mirror Fighting exercise, but if you plan on using it then make sure that you are doing the exercise for yourself and not your partner. This is an exercise of accountability not one of finger pointing.
The second exercise I want to discuss is the Blueprint Exercise. I want you to think about the rooms and spaces in your home. What happens in those spaces? For instance, what happens in your kitchen? Is it a place of cooking? A place of friendly chaos? Is it loud or quiet?
The kitchen is one of the most important spaces in any home. It can be a place of community, laughter, and togetherness. It can also be a place where you and your spouse have O.K. Corral stand offs.
A lot of couples argue in the kitchen, kids are getting home from practice and Mom and Dad are getting home from work. The kitchen becomes the watering hole. Unfortunately then the kitchen also becomes the epicenter for people to vent their frustrations from the day or with one another.
Now, I am all about venting and verbally blowing off some steam. But there is one small problem with doing it in the kitchen. People are standing! Have you ever been in a fight while standing? Chances are you have, and during that argument, your blood pressure and heart were elevated.
Arguments in the kitchen have a stronger tendency to become more volatile than any other location in the home. It comes down to simple physiology. When we are standing we are at a higher arousal state and it is much easier to move out the front of our brain and start becoming more emotional and reactive.
The Blueprint Exercise is a tool to help any couple see the spaces in their home as environments that have the potential to foster growth or bread negativity when they are discussing sensitive or vulnerable topics. I have my couples draw out the entire house like a blueprint.
From that point, the couple walks me through a normal day from dawn to dawn. We explore where the kids go, what rooms are used more often, which areas they fight in, where they make love, and where practical and sustainable environmental solutions are with little to no effort to implement.
The Mirror Fighting and Blueprint exercises are just a couple of exercises that couples can do to help foster a more healthy and robust communication climate. The biggest thing that I focus on during the session is letting couples know that is much easier to start with the simple things than it is to address highly specific nuanced communication dynamics.
Communication is kinetic and personal. My philosophy is that couples who are able to take the simple steps to address their environment and non-verbals are well on their way to establishing healthy communication.
“Pay Phone”, Courtesy of Luis Quintero, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Holding Hands”, Courtesy of Min An, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “The Man in the Mirror”, Courtesy of Lucas Pezeta, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Dinner Party”, Courtesy of Lisa Fotios, Pexels.com, CC0 License