The Importance of Goodwill in Couple Communication Skills

By Nathan Cobb, Ph.D.

Communication is probably the number one stated problem area among the couples I work with in my practice. Common problem descriptions include, “We don’t communicate very well,” or “we argue too much,” or “we just don’t know how to communicate with each other.”

When couples experience frequent arguments and the heartache of unresolved conflict it is no wonder that they identify “lack of communication” as one of their central issues.

Good communication is an important part of keeping a relationship vibrant and strong. It seems a logical assumption that we might be able to reduce the divorce rate by ensuring that couples had the tools for improving their communication skills.

It is an appealing promise that if we teach and learn helpful skills such as using “I-statements,” paraphrasing each other’s feelings and thoughts, speaking one at a time, negotiating solutions together, and avoiding blame and faultfinding, then our marriages will improve.

Unfortunately, it isn't so simple. As long as we are open, teachable, and willing; as long as we feel safe with each other; as long as we want to work together, then learning such couple communication skills can make a big difference in our relationships.

But there are many other factors at work besides knowledge and skills that affect not only the quality of a couple's communication but the quality of their relationship in general. Such factors include commitment, willingness, intentions, desire, caring, and attitude.

Some couples are so entrenched in negative intentions and attitudes that they are either unwilling to use what they know or somehow they use communication techniques in ways that make matters worse.

Think about the statement, "We don't know how to communicate effectively." If you consider that the "effect" couples sometimes have on each other is clearly aligned with their desire to hurt or to push each other away, you might argue that they communicate very effectively. Perhaps what couples really mean when they say this is, "We don't know how to connect effectively."

Good communication is a tool, and good tools can make a task much easier to accomplish. But good tools can’t make up for the person using them. In the hands of a skilled cabinet-maker who sets out to create a beautiful piece of furniture, a hammer can be an important tool. But in the hands of someone with unkind intentions, a hammer can quickly become a weapon.

Some years ago I came across a research study(1) demonstrating that, contrary to popular wisdom, happily married couples do not possess any more communication skills than unhappily married couples.

This may sound sensational, until you understand how the researchers defined communication skill, which was proficiency in sending and receiving clear messages and the ability to accurately interpret the intent of each other’s message.

Overall, the happily married couples in this study were found to possess the same amount of communication skills as unhappily married couples. In other words, in both groups the researchers found the same proficiency levels at effectively sending and accurately receiving clear messages.

Where the two groups differed was in their intentions and in how they used their skills. Couples in high quality marriages acted with more positive intentions toward their spouses than did couples in distressed marriages. In addition, with the happily married couples only, there was a positive relationship between skill level and marital satisfaction, with higher skill levels associated with greater satisfaction levels.

The couples in distressed marriages, on the other hand, were motivated by more negative intentions in their communication with their spouses. In addition, the distressed couples either did not use the skills they possessed or they used their skills to harm each other. The authors of this study summed up their findings with the statement that relationship distress has much more to do with “ill will” than it does with “poor skill.”

Skill is only one element of positive communication, and it may not be the most important element. There are matters of the heart that affect how we use our skills, and that facilitate connection and caring even when we may not be that great with words.

Further, communication often improves naturally when we align our desires and attitudes with principles of commitment, honesty, personal accountability and loving actions. Putting our heart right has to come before putting our communication right.

The Communication Triangle

Positive communication can be boiled down to three essential elements: attitude, desire and skill.

Attitude refers to your sentiment toward your partner and the emotionally-laden perspectives that guide how you act in the relationship.

Attitude affects your willingness to accommodate to each other and to take personal responsibility for your part in relationship difficulties.

Desire refers to your intentions, desires, and yearnings for personal growth, for your spouse's well-being and happiness, and for positive change in the relationship.

Skill refers to your ability to communicate directly and clearly, repair relationship ruptures, manage differences, negotiate solutions, and solve problems together.

Imagine these three elements arranged in a triangle, with attitude and desire forming the two points at the base of the triangle and skill forming the point at the top. This arrangement emphasizes that attitude and desire are the foundation for positive communication.

Helpful, positive attitudes and the desire to put each other first can sometimes make up for short-comings in communication skill level. High skill level, however, cannot make up for negative attitudes or lack of desire.

These distinctions are important because they help to explain why traditional marriage counselling approaches that emphasize communication skills sometimes do little good for couples.

Some couples are so embittered and full of negative attitudes and intentions that their ill will and resentments are like stored-up gasoline. Raising and trying to solve difficult issues in the absence of positive sentiment and goodwill is like the match.

All you need to do is put the match to the gasoline and ...! Marriage counselling can end up becoming a battleground instead of a healing place.

This is not to say communication skills are unimportant. There are many useful strategies and principles to learn that can help couples manage conflict and handle disagreements more constructively. I use them in my work with couples and I have outlined some of them in previous articles.

But without a helpful, open attitude and the desire to connect with your spouse, then "communication skills training" can become like a hammer in the hands of someone with a score to settle or like a match set to gasoline.

Attitude

Synonyms for attitude include mindset, perspective, sentiment, outlook, demeanor, and philosophy. It’s the orientation of your mind and heart toward your spouse. Pause for a moment and reflect on the following questions:

  • Are you oriented toward your spouse with a hostile outlook or a softened outlook?

  • Are you overcome with negative sentiment toward your spouse or you filled with positive sentiment?

  • Are you quick to assume ill will or are you willing to look for the good in each other and to assume that your spouse has goodwill toward you?

  • Do you focus on blaming your partner and minimizing or justifying your own negative actions or are you willing to take responsibility for yourself and how you contribute to the relationship—both to its problems as well as to its strengths?

  • Are you willing to apologize sincerely and fully? Are you willing to forgive?

  • Do you strive to put the relationship first? Are you willing to put your partner’s needs before your own to show that you care and that you truly want your spouse to feel respected and cherished?

Desire

Now let’s look briefly at desire. Desire is a longing or a craving for something that brings satisfaction or enjoyment. What are you longing for in your relationship? What are you longing for personally? What are you longing for your spouse to experience? What direction are your desires taking you? Think about the following questions:

  • Are you actively cultivating a desire for your spouse’s happiness, freedom of choice, and well-being, not just your own?

  • Do you desire for your spouse to feel heard, understood, and validated as much as you desire these things for yourself?

  • How strong is your desire for your spouse to feel included in your life, to feel that his or her opinions and feelings matter to you?

  • Do you desire for your spouse to feel like you are “tuned in” to him or her?

  • Do you desire for your spouse to feel loved enough that you are willing to expand your own ideas about how to express this love and really learn what your spouse needs from you in order to feel loved?

  • Do you desire for your spouse’s hopes and dreams to come true?

  • Do you desire to defend yourself and let yourself off the hook or do you desire to understand yourself and your spouse more fully?

  • Do you desire to be teachable, humble, and open?

  • Do you desire to overcome your own weaknesses and fears?

  • Is your desire for a better relationship strong enough if you find it hard to take action to nurture it? How can you strengthen your desire?

Cultivating Positive Attitudes and Desires

Communication skills are about what you know and what you’ve learned. Attitudes and desires are more about who you are.

It is understandable why teaching communication skills is such a popular method for improving marriages, because it is easy to do and it seems so intuitive. Knowledge and strategies can be taught, and if people are open and willing to learn then both the teacher and the learner can be edified together.

But it is difficult to “teach” attitude and desire. Attitude and desire are matters of the heart. Positive attitudes and desires need to be invited, encouraged, cultivated, nurtured and consciously chosen in the face of difficulty. This is where lasting change begins.

So how do you cultivate positive attitudes and desires? Here are some tips:

  • Consciously choose to focus on the positives in each other. Make a list of your spouse’s positive qualities and things you appreciate about your spouse. Think of what your spouse does that demonstrates his or her goodwill overall. If you catch yourself dwelling on negatives, stop yourself. Shift your thinking to something positive.

  • Learn about each other's emotional needs--things that allow your partner to feel loved and valued by you. It is unlikely that you both share the same emotional needs, so don't make the mistake of only showing love in the way that you like to receive love. Instead, make intentional, regular, and daily deposits into each other’s emotional bank account in ways that your partner recognizes as loving, caring behavior. You might have to go out of your comfort zone. If your partner needs to be touched and you are not a "touchy" person, it is time to learn a new love language. It will be awkward at first, but refusing to do so sends the message, "I don't really care enough about you to learn to love you in the way that you need me to. I just want to love you in a way that is easy or natural for me."

  • Build your friendship with each other by tuning in to each other’s feelings and needs, intentionally looking for ways to express caring, spending time with each other, and having fun together.

  • Express fondness by touching each other affectionately every day. Tender touch is a fundamental need for human beings. Touch is healing. Your body is an extension of you, so when someone touches your body tenderly it is like they are touching and acknowledging you.

  • When you are upset or angry about something your spouse has done, change your internal dialogue to emphasize friendship, fondness and goodwill. For example, “This really bothers me when he does this, but I know that he means well and he works hard and I am sure that he doesn’t mean for me to feel this way. It makes me angry but I need to remember that he is my friend and to respect him.” This internal dialogue will help you approach your spouse in a more loving way even when you bring up the issue that bothers you.

Conclusion

Attitudes and desires change for the better when couples shift their focus to connecting with each other and to re-building their friendship instead of hammering each other over hot topics. This is why it is so critical to build on positives before trying to overcome big relationship challenges.

Changing your attitudes and desires and putting your relationship first are neither easy nor simple. It doesn’t happen overnight and there will certainly be setbacks. But if you are committed to cultivating a caring attitude and heartfelt desire to connect with your spouse this will make it easier to work through difficult issues. The frequency and intensity of your arguments will decrease. Best of all, you will find that your friendship, fondness and admiration for each other grows stronger over time.

1 Burleson, B. R. & Denton, W. H. (1997). The relationship between communication skill and marital satisfaction: Some moderating effects. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 59, 884-902.



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