March 2007: Issue #004

Welcome to Marriage Matters, an ezine devoted to helping individuals and couples prepare for, enhance or revitalize their marriage.

In this Issue:

Feature Article
Put Goodwill Before Good Skill

Featured Author
Marriage Fitness with Mort Fertel:
How to Get Your Spouse to Hear You

Relationship Reps
Building Positive Attitudes and Desires

Also in this Issue:

Recommended E-Books

Forward to A Friend

Subscription Information

Feature Article

Put Goodwill Before Good Skill

by Nathan Cobb, Ph.D.

Communication is probably the number one stated problem area for most couples in my practice. Common remarks I hear are, “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.

It may seem that knowing how to communicate effectively is an important part of keeping a relationship vibrant and strong. It is an appealing promise that we might be able to reduce the divorce rate by ensuring that couples had the tools and skills for improving their communication.

It seems intuitive that if we 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 couples are open, teachable, and willing; as long as they feel safe with each other; as long as they want to work together, then learning such skills can make a big difference in their communication.

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 perceptions that they are either unwilling to use what they know or somehow they use communication techniques in ways that make matters worse.

A lot of couples say that they don't know how to communicate effectively. But when you consider that the "effect" they have on each other is clearly aligned with their desire to hurt or to push the other person 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 definitely make life easier. But good tools can’t make up for the person using them. In the hands of a skilled cabinet-maker who wants to create a beautiful piece of furniture, a hammer is a great thing. But in the hands of an idle or angry person, even one who is skilled in the tool's use, a hammer may do little good at best and may even become a weapon at worst.

Some years ago I came across a research study1 demonstrating that, contrary to popular wisdom, happily married couples do not possess any more communication ability than unhappy couples. In this study, ability was defined as proficiency in sending and receiving clear messages and accurately interpreting the intent of each other’s message.

Think about this finding for a moment. In both groups you'll find the same proficiency levels at effectively sending and accurately receiving clear messages.

Where the two groups differed a great deal, was in their intentions and in how they used their skills. Couples in high quality marriages had more positive intentions than couples in distressed marriages.

In addition, happy couples seemed to use their communication skills to enhance their relationship, whereas distressed couples either did not use what they knew 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 is probably not 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. 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 relationship 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 manage differences and negotiate solutions.

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 often 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.

What is 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?

What is 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 for your spouse? What direction are your desires taking you? Think about the following questions:

  • Are you actively cultivating a desire for your spouse’s happiness, 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 such that you set aside 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? The following are some ideas:

  • 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.


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.

1Burleson, 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.

Caveat: This article is meant for couples who are struggling with communication difficulties, chronic conflict, emotional distancing and so forth. Dealing with other serious issues such as emotional or physical abuse and chemical dependency are beyond the scope of this article.

Note: If you enjoyed this article, you can learn more about this topic in the next article by Mort Fertel, author of Marriage Fitness.

Featured Author

Marriage Fitness with Mort Fertel



Recently I had a series of private phone sessions with a person who was very frustrated. Listen to how this person described their situation. I bet you’ll be able to relate to it.


This person said they felt trapped in their basement trying to communicate with their spouse via Morse Code. They said they were banging on the pipes trying desperately to be heard. They would bang on the pipes and wait for a response. Bang and wait…bang and wait…bang and wait. But each time they finished banging, there was silence. No matter how hard they banged and no matter how long they waited; their spouse never heard them.


Hi. My name is Mort Fertel, author of Marriage Fitness.


Are you trying to get heard? Do you feel ignored? Is your spouse not responding to your communication?


We live in an interesting time. With one click, you can communicate with anyone in the world. It’s easy, quick, and free. You even have options. If you don’t want to click, you could dial, beep, page, instant-message, or Fed Ex. It’s true. Your ability to communicate with the outside world has become increasingly easy. But my guess is that your ability to communicate with your spouse has become increasingly difficult.


The reason for this is that most people confuse INFORMATION communication with PERSONAL communication. Technological advancements give us all sorts of options to communicate information. But how do you feel the pulse of someone’s soul? How do you communicate the subtleties in your heart? You can’t text message that. You can have the latest and greatest in communication gadgets, but it won’t matter. PERSONAL communication is a whole different ball game. And it’s PERSONAL communication that determines the success or failure of your marriage.


I’m reminded of a scene from a Broadway play. A man and woman happen to meet on a train and engage in polite conversation. They were both headed home to New York after a day in New Haven, CT. After further discussion, they learned that they were going to the same building on Fifth Avenue. Lo and behold they discovered that they had the same daughter and lived in the same apartment. They finally discovered that they were husband and wife.


You know what’s killing marriages these days? EMAIL! More and more I’m seeing husbands and wives resort to email to communicate with each other. You want to do something tangible TODAY to improve your marriage? STOP EMAILING YOUR SPOUSE! Email is for INFORMATION. But in a marriage you’ve got to HEAR each other. And I don’t mean hear the sounds of each other’s words. You’ve got to be able to hear the silence between the sounds and interpret the unspoken meaning of a pressed lips or teary eyes. You’ve got to be able to hear the shapes and sounds in each other’s heart. You can NOT accomplish this via email.


And let me be clear about something; you can’t do it with communication techniques either. There’s no clinical communication therapy that can help you and your spouse think each other’s thoughts, feel each other joy, and cringe from each other’s pain. My 1-on-1 phone session schedule and the Marriage Fitness Tele Boot Camp are filled with casualties from traditional communication strategies and the usual marriage counseling approach. If you’re like most people with marriage trouble, you’ve been down that path and you know that it does NOT work.


Today my 4-year-old son came to me with a bruise on his leg. He was crying and I could see that it was black and blue. He said, “Daddy, I need a band-aide.”


I responded, “But it’s not bleeding.”


He said again, “Daddy, can you put a band-aide on it?”


I realized that my son’s perspective was that when something hurts a band-aide makes it better…even if it’s a bruise and not a cut.


So what does this have to do with communication in a marriage? Because most people think that if spouses aren’t hearing each other that communication techniques will solve the problem. But that’s like putting a band-aide on a bruise. It’s the wrong solution.


Communication techniques can help colleagues transmit INFORMATION clearly. Communication techniques belong in seminars that teach negotiation and sales. But you’re not trying to complete a transaction with your spouse; you’re trying to renew a relationship. I can almost guarantee you that your problem is not clarity; it’s concern. Ironically, communication techniques sometimes give people clarity that they don’t care what their spouse thinks or feels. They “got it,” but “it” doesn’t matter to them anymore.


How do you get back to the place where you and your spouse care again?


This is one of the things that’s unique about the Marriage Fitness approach to repairing a relationship versus traditional counseling. Most approaches to marriage success preach communication skills. But communicating effectively will NOT create love in your marriage. In fact, the correlation is the opposite. Creating love in your marriage paves the way for effective communication. I’ll prove it to you.


Think about when you fell in love. How was your communication? Good, right? In fact, when you’re in love, you communicate with the wink of an eye and you can finish each other’s sentences. And yet you haven’t known each other that long and you haven’t learned any communication techniques.


Then, years later, after getting to know each other inside and out, employing psychologically tested and proven communication strategies, and taking into account all the differences between Mars and Venus, you can’t get through to each other.


Listen carefully: Communication has very little to do with techniques or knowledge of each other. It has everything to do with the depth of connection between the communicators.


The question you should be asking is NOT, “How do I communicate effectively with my spouse.” The question you should be asking is, “How do I connect with my spouse again?” Once you reconnect, you won’t be sitting in silence in the basement. You’ll hear the sound of the pipes from above. It’ll be your spouse. You were heard. 


If you want to learn how to connect with your spouse again, subscribe to my FREE report, “7 Secrets for a Stronger Marriage” and get my FREE marriage assessment. CLICK HERE to subscribe. It’s FREE.


Warm regards,

Mort Fertel

Author of Marriage Fitness

Marriage Coach


Relationship Reps

This section of Marriage Matters offers easy-to-do and practical exercises each month to help couples strengthen their relationship. Just like repetition and strength training at the gym builds your body and your muscles, conscious repetition of positive behaviors and actions over time will build and strengthen your marriage.

This Month: Building Positive Attitudes and Desires

Clarify Your Desires.

What do you truly desire for your spouse and for your relationship? In the spaces below, write down five desires you have for your spouse and five desires you have for your relationship. Let these desires take hold in you and let them guide your actions in your relationship.

Desires for my Spouse

1. ____________________________________________________________

2. ____________________________________________________________

3. ____________________________________________________________

4. ____________________________________________________________

5. ____________________________________________________________

Desires for our Relationship

1. ____________________________________________________________

2. ____________________________________________________________

3. ____________________________________________________________

4. ____________________________________________________________

5. ____________________________________________________________

Focus on Positives

Think of ten positive things about your spouse that you like or appreciate. List them in the spaces below. Reflect on this list and memorize it. Share it with your spouse.

The next time something bothers you, review this list to keep things in perspective. You may still wish to discuss the issue with your spouse, but if you approach him or her in an attitude of respect and goodwill you are more likely to achieve mutual understanding.

1. __________________________________________________________

2. __________________________________________________________

3. __________________________________________________________

4. __________________________________________________________

5. __________________________________________________________

6. __________________________________________________________

7. __________________________________________________________

8. __________________________________________________________

9. __________________________________________________________

10. __________________________________________________________

Recommended E-Books

Save the Marriage by Dr. Lee Baucom.

For over 15 years Dr. Lee Baucom has been offering his unique brand of marriage help through his book, Save the Marriage. This is a very useful book that you can download to your computer in ten minutes and begin to use the information to help transform your relationship starting today.

For more information simply click on the image to the left.

Forward to a Friend

If you have found the articles in this issue useful to you, please consider forwarding this newsletter to a friend.


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Nathan Cobb, Ph.D. in MFT, RMFT, R.Psych
200C Haddon Road SW
Calgary, AB T2V 2Y6
Tel: (403) 255-8577
Fax: (403) 255-8570

For more information please visit

Nathan Cobb, Ph.D in MFT, RMFT, R.Psych

Nathan Cobb, Ph.D.
Registered Marriage
& Family Therapist
Registered Psychologist


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Can Our Marriage Be Saved?

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