Posted by: Debbie Loyd | July 2, 2012

Speaking: The Other Half

There are basically just two elements to communication in a relationship: listening and talking. We’ve already talked about listening. Talking is the other half. There are some elements of speaking that are important if you want the best chance of being heard, especially if you are talking about something you disagree about or if you are asking for something.

First, it may sound obvious, but it’s important to stay on the topic. If you are trying to tell your spouse that something they have done has upset you, don’t drag in a laundry list of past grievances. This waters down your effectiveness, confuses the issue, and makes the other person defensive. But what if your partner is defensive? Visualize heading down a straight road to a particular goal, and resist the temptation to follow them down a side road. Just politely ignore or bring the subject back to what you’re trying to share. This will be most effective when speaking from your own perspective (using “I” statements).

There are “I” statements and “You” statements. “You” statements are things like, “You make me angry!”, “You’re lazy”, or “You don’t listen.” These are basically attacks on your partner’s behavior and/or character. “You” statements invite defensiveness or counterattack. They also don’t tell the other person very much about you.

A basic “I” statement includes what you feel and/or what you want. When you tell your spouse that you’re feeling like you’re doing more than your share of the work and would like them to help with specific tasks, you share yourself. The nice thing about “I” statements is that people generally don’t argue with you about what you feel. You just feel what you feel. It really doesn’t even matter if it’s a reasonable feeling or not.  We all want our partner to care about our feelings. The second part of “I” statements, asking for what you want or need, focuses on solutions instead of blame.

One of the exercises I give couples is to change “you” statements into “I” statements. Try some of these with your partner.

You make me angry!
You never let me get a word in!
Don’t be so touchy!
That wasn’t funny!

Remember, think about what you might be feeling if you said these and/or what you might be wanting. Possible answers are at the end of this article.

The last thing about speaking is to say what you want rather than what you don’t want. For example, instead of saying, “You’re always watching TV”, try “I would really like to do something together tonight.” If you think the difference is trivial, experiment with examples with your spouse.

Possible answers for above “you” statements:  (“I’m feeling angry”, “I have something I really want to say” OR “I have something I really want you to hear”,  “I feel like I’m walking on eggshells around you”, and “That comment you just made hurt my feelings.”

Posted by: Debbie Loyd | January 9, 2012

Listening is More Than Being Quiet

Good communication is important to a healthy marriage. Most couples would probably say they would like to improve their communication, but they’re not sure how to do that. Essentially, communication can be broken down into two parts: listening and speaking. I’d like to focus this blog entry on listening.

Listening sounds simple but is actually quite complex. Most Americans are not very good listeners. We’re busy thinking about how we’re going to respond or what we want to say. We think of listening as a very passive activity. In actuality, listening is a very active process and is anything but quiet.

I would like to suggest 3 parts of listening*:

1)    Try to understand your partner’s point of view. It will probably differ from your own, and that’s OK. Listening is not a time to make decisions about who is right and who is wrong, and it is not the time to negotiate. It can be hard to listen to a perspective you disagree with, and you may feel defensive. Just listen; don’t defend. Try to picture setting defensiveness in a box beside you for a moment while you simply listen.

2)    Tell your partner what you heard him or her say. Sometimes our own feelings, beliefs, and perceptions can color what we hear, so it is important to make sure you heard correctly. You can repeat verbatim some of what you have heard or you can put it in your own words and then check to see if that is a valid interpretation. Avoid saying, “I understand.” Instead, tell your partner exactly what you heard.

3)    Encourage your partner to share even more. This takes a number of different forms. Sometimes simply repeating what we heard makes the other person feel supported and free to share more. Asking about or reflecting back the feelings being expressed behind the words makes your partner feel validated, and it helps them clarify for themselves what they are experiencing. This also builds intimacy. Don’t assume that you know what your partner means, even if you think you do. Assume the role of asking questions to find out what more you might learn.

Active listening is not about agreeing. It is about making communication clear and is about having a way to understand both person’s feelings or opinions so that a win-win solution can be made. Active listening is a way to use conflict to become closer together rather than farther apart.

*I would like to give credit to Dr. Art Ulene from whom I first got these elements of listening and from Dr. Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson (couples therapists and lecturers).

Posted by: Debbie Loyd | October 21, 2011

The Importance of Couples goals


Just as vision statements give structure and make businesses more productive, so marriage goals can help couples have the relationship they really want. Not having goals is like walking around in the dark. Without goals, people are busy responding to what happens to them instead of setting their own direction. Goals accomplish so many great things!

Just as vision statements give structure and make businesses more productive, so marriage goals can help couples have the relationship they really want. Not having goals is like walking around in the dark. Without goals, people are busy responding to what happens to them instead of setting their own direction. Goals accomplish so many great things!

Couples Goals:

  • Bring you closer together.
  • Get you sharing about what is really important.
  • Help you work together as a team.
  • Give you a sense of purpose.
  • Helps you understand the values underneath your differences.
  • Make differences easier to negotiate.
  • Focus you away from negative to positive.

Couples therapists Ellyn Bader, Ph.D. and Peter Pearson, Ph.D.* divide couple goals into three categories which I think are very helpful:

  • Doing – Behaviors such as participating in a sport or activity or taking a vacation.
  • Having/Getting – What you would like to have or get, such as a house or a successful career.
  • Being – What kind of relationship you would like. Examples are: “I want to be a better listener” or “I want our relationship to be a very respectful marriage” or “I want our relationship to be full of laughter and humor.” These are not the goals we typically think of. They are about ideals. They are more than just ego-gratifying and often require insight and growth and are well worth the effort.

Bader and Pearson often use these three types of goals to help couples in conflict. They ask a couple to describe what they would like to have or get . They then ask them what they would have to be in order to reach those goals (e.g. more organized or more affectionate). Finally, Bader and Pearson ask the couple to define what they would do (specific behaviors). This does a number of things. It gets partners away from blame and thinking about what they each could do. It also is a great way to get to underlying issues in a conflict, and it turns the focus from the negative to the positive.

*Bader and Pearson are doing some fine work and have lots of resources to offer. I have been to their workshop and have found their ideas have structured much of my work with couples. I encourage you to visit their website:
Posted by: Debbie Loyd | August 4, 2011

Be the Right Mate

“Success in marriage does not come merely through FINDING the right mate, but through BEING the right mate.” (Rabbi Barnett R. Brickner). After searching so hard for the right person, one can get stuck on this focus. The searching process has been about finding the person with the right personality, interests, and values. If one has chosen well, some very important other elements like good communication, but especially character traits can be developed. Character traits are not biologically or environmentally determined. Barbara DeAngelis, in her book entitled Are You the One?, describes six character qualities that result in better marriages:

  • Commitment to personal growth
  • Emotional openness
  • Integrity
  • Maturity and responsibility
  • Self-esteem
  • Positive attitude toward life

I use these six qualities with premarital couples to help them reflect, not only on their partner, but themselves and to help them identify areas in which their own personal growth will benefit the relationship. Commitment to personal growth involves having specific goals, being able to receive feedback and help. One who is committed to personal growth is changing over time. Emotional openness has to do with being generous with feelings. This kind of a person can identify their feelings and can share them. Integrity is about morals but also about actions matching words and expressions matching feelings. They are true to themselves, to their partner, and to others. Maturity is reflected in being able to earn money, keep their space clean, and eat healthily. It is also about follow-through and respect of others’ possessions, feelings, time, and boundaries. People with high self-esteem are less defensive in times of conflict. They don’t let others abuse them, and they don’t abuse themselves.  People with a positive attitude focus on solutions, not problems. They are not ruled by fear and worry.

Posted by: Debbie Loyd | May 24, 2011

Great Expectations

We all come to marriage with happy expectations. In fact, it’s our belief in the potential of the relationship that brings us to the altar. We expect faithfulness, respect, and love, and we expect our love to last. Expectations can also be a source of conflict in marriage for a couple of reasons. First, some expectations are unrealistic. Second, couples often have differing expectations.

Let’s look at the first aspect: unrealistic expectations. Our expectations come from several sources:

  • The media (movies, books, songs, etc.)
  • Our experiences growing up and what was modeled for us.
  • What we would like to have*
  • What we think we deserve*

The problem with many romance movies and books is that they portray unrealistic expectations such as:

  • My partner should be able to know what I need.
  • I shouldn’t have to work for love or to be trusted.
  • My partner should be emotionally available to me whenever I need him or her.
  • We shouldn’t have to work at feeling sexual desire for each other; it should come naturally or not all.
  • If I’m not happy in my relationship, it’s my partner’s fault.
  • True love conquers all.
  • There is one and only one right person in the world for each person to marry.

Read More…

Posted by: Debbie Loyd | February 15, 2011

Speaking Different Languages?


If you’ve ever tried to learn a new language, you know how hard it is. It doesn’t come natural. Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages, says that communicating love to our partner is much like speaking in languages. We each have different ways that we like to give and receive love. Sometimes we don’t feel loved, not because our partner isn’t being loving, but because our partner is showing their love in what can be described as a different language than our own.

Let me give an illustration that’s similar. At Christmas, I tend to like practical gifts—perhaps something I’ve been wanting but have been reluctant to spend the money on. My husband’s idea is something much more romantic—jewelry, etc. I can receive that and feel misunderstood and unheard, OR I can realize that, to my husband, this is a very loving gift. To him, a practical gift doesn’t feel like much of a gift.

Gary Chapman has expanded this idea farther. He describes five primary ways people express their love.

  • Words of Affirmation. This can include compliments but also general encouragement. It requires seeing the world from our partner’s eyes.
  • Quality Time. Chapman says this involves not just physical proximity but focused attention. Quality time could be talking or doing an activity together. In this language, the enjoyment of the relationship is more important than the actual activity.
  • Receiving Gifts. What makes this a valued language is that the gift is a symbol of the fact that your loved one was thinking about you. The monetary value of the gift is not as important.
  • Acts of Service. Usually this is the small, unglamorous jobs that your partner would like you to do. It can be as mundane as changing the cat’s litter box, but your noticing that it needs done and doing it is a special gift of love.
  • Physical Touch. The fifth language is probably the one most of us think of first. It’s physical touch. Again, there can be quite a range—anywhere from a momentary gentle touch to sexual intercourse. Researchers have long appreciated the importance of physical contact.

How do you know which language is most important to you? Chapman recommends thinking about which ones you tend to use most in expressing love. This may be your preferred language. He also suggests asking yourself what your spouse does or says or fails to do or say that hurts you deeply. This provides important clues.

Just as learning a new verbal language is difficult, it is hard to begin communicating in a new love language. The good news is that as you learn to express love in a way that feels like love to your partner, you and the relationship will grow.

Posted by: Debbie Loyd | January 4, 2011

Fix-It Talk

The definition of a problem determines the solutions we choose.  Our natural tendency, as we have learned, is to define a conflict in terms of  a defect in our partner. We also saw that there are many underlying elements in a conflict.

So how do we talk about it with each other? Christensen & Jacobson suggest creating a “story” about the problem that includes both people. Interestingly enough, the more complex this is, the more effective it is in suggesting solutions. There are elements that should and should not be included in the story. This will be more clear if I put some of these in chart form.


Focus on This                                                         Not This

Differences between you Defects
Descriptions (facts) Opinions or Interpretations
Vulnerabilities/Feelings triggered by the behavior Offending Behavior
Descriptions of your individual coping processes Evaluations
Present dilemma & solutions Past grievances
Yes-And Thinking Either-Or Thinking


In the last blog, we already looked at differences vs. defects, so let’s look at the others. In describing what set off the conflict, think in terms of facts. Facts are things which cannot be argued. For example, “when we’re sitting at the table at breakfast” is fact (unarguable) and “you’re reading the newspaper” is fact (unarguable). Contrast this with, “when you ignore me at breakfast”  which is opinion (arguable).

Next, describe your experience (vulnerabilities and feelings triggered by the behavior). For example, “It’s hard for me to relax when there is a lot of clutter” (This works better than “You’re a lousy housekeeper.”)

The next step is to describe how each of you copes with your vulnerabilities and feelings. For example, “When I feel attacked, I withdraw. When I withdraw, you feel abandoned and pursue me with lots of questions.”

Always stay focused on the present problem and resist the temptation to bring in past grievances. Yes-and thinking is collaborative and includes both people’s experiences whereas either-or thinking leads to arguing about who is right and who is wrong.

Posted by: Debbie Loyd | October 15, 2010

What’s Underneath a Conflict

As we saw in the last blog, we tend to explain differences between us and our partner by labeling our partner. Seeing our partner as having a defect or being the problem makes conflict more difficult to resolve.  Empathy involves considering external pressures. I would like to expand on this. Sometimes we are not really fighting about what we think, especially when we have the same conflicts repeatedly. Karen Heitler, author of The Angry Couple: Conflict-Focused Treatment, explains that we often have underlying issues, including fears, desires, and values.

Fears can be a huge factor in conflicts: fear of loss of control, fear of failure or inadequacy, fear or rejection, fear of strong affect, and fear of intimacy. For example, a couple having difficulty discussing vacation plans may actually be dealing with a more general issue of control. People can become very sensitive to certain fears because of their experiences growing up. We all come to relationships with a certain “lens”  from our past. Just because we feel our partner is being a certain way (e.g. controlling), doesn’t mean they are. What is important is NOT who’s right, but caring about and respecting each other’s experiences and feelings.

Identifying desires and needs is important. Perhaps one has a desire or need for validation which gets lost in the midst of the argument. Perhaps the desire for financial security is driving another’s criticisms.

Values are a little more general than needs and desires, so they can be harder to identify.  When people think of values, they often think of morals or what “should” be done. There are many other values people have: health, peace, truth, being close to family, safety, success, aesthetics, being in style, education, genuineness, adventure, trustworthiness, self-expression, honor, preferring natural rather than synthetic, simplicity, etc. What I value may be reflected more in my actions than my words—how I treat other people, how I treat myself, how I raise my children, how I spend my money and free time, what kinds of goals I set and how I go about achieving those, my political opinions, my attitude toward those less fortunate than myself, and my health habits.

Once fears, desires, and values have been recognized, it will be much easier to create win-win solutions that will leave both people feeling heard and cared about.

Posted by: Debbie Loyd | August 27, 2010

Labels matter

Like it or not, we all do it. We form opinions about other people. We do it in order to organize and simplify our world. People are complex and we can’t completely know a person, but we can observe and come up with schemas  or labels which organize many different experiences into categories. These schemas  help us interpret others’ behaviors and sometimes even their motivations and intentions. What we believe to be true about someone can be more real than what is actually true.

We do this with our spouse. This becomes problematic when we have negative schemas. Let’s take a look at how this works. When couples have conflict, it is human nature to search for the culprit. It has to be either you or your partner. Research has shown that when we try to explain our own actions, we tend to look at external pressures, but when we explain the actions of others, we tend to look at internal factors such as personality traits. As Andrew Christensen and Neil S. Jacobson in Reconcilable Differences say, “As we think over our partners’ actions, we often conduct a kind of legal inquiry in our heads. We hold a mental trial to evaluate their emotional crimes against us.” We resort to negative schemas to justify to ourselves that our partner has a defect or flaw.

Examples of negative schemas include “lazy”, “stupid”, “insensitive”, “egotistical”, “controlling”, “spendthrift”, etc. We base a particular negative schema on several observations that seem to suggest it. For example, let’s suppose that Mike is often late coming home from work and doesn’t call to let his wife, Kathy, know. Mike doesn’t talk about feelings with Kathy. When Kathy shares her own vulnerable feelings, Mike stares at a picture on the wall or tells her what she should do to fix it. Kathy sees Mike as–maybe you have already guessed–insensitive. Mike sees Kathy as lazy. When he gets home from work, he finds the house a mess. Kathy doesn’t like to do yard work with Mike and would rather be inside reading or quilting.

One of the problems with negative schemas is that we don’t question them. We tend to ignore and filter out anything that doesn’t fit. Kathy forgets the times Mike has surprised her by bringing home something that he remembers is her favorite, and Mike doesn’t notice how hard Kathy works at church and  on volunteer projects. Another way we strengthen negative schemas is to play them over and over in our mind.

The key to lessening the influence of negative schemas in our marriage is to examine them. It can be helpful to keep track of negative feelings for a few days by noticing the situations that cause those feelings, our thoughts at the time, and even the consequences of believing the schema. This can help us not only identify specific schemas but also help us see how we become part of the problem (e.g. becoming withdrawn).

After identifying schemas, the goal is to build true empathy. We can do this by exploring alternative explanations for our partner’s behavior. In Couple Skills, McKay, Fanning, and Paleg suggest  trying to understand the external pressures and factors at work in our partner such as needs, fears, assumptions, personal history, skills (or lack of skills), and perceived choices. For example, in the example above, Mike grew up in a family that didn’t talk about feelings (history). He actually is quite empathic, but he doesn’t know how to show this (skills, fear). He assumes that Kathy wants solutions, not a listening ear (assumptions). Once you decide to look for alternative explanations, you may have a very interesting and intimate conversation.  It also helps to recognize and own the disappointment you feel without blaming. Oops, sounds a little like an “I statement”–a topic for another day.

Posted by: Debbie Loyd | June 24, 2010

Friends or Lovers?

I would like to expand on my last blog regarding the crucial friendship factor in successful marriages. Just to refresh your memory, recent marriage researchers have found that helping couples maintain positive feelings and intimacy is more helpful than teaching conflict resolution skills. Successful couples are able to maintain positive feelings DESPITE conflict. I like the way Ted Huston describes this:  “Discontent doesn’t spill over and soil the rest of their lives.” I think this means that couples are able to keep disagreements about specific differences separate from general relationship issues. Consequently, conflict doesn’t result in viewing each other negatively. How is this possible? I think it has to do with friendship. We often forget that, whatever else our partner is to us, they should be our best friend. Without deep friendship, it is too easy to become focused on getting and judging.

What do you think of when you think of friendship? The things that come to mind for me are intimacy, safety, and respect. I think my favorite friendship quote is, “A friend is one to whom one may pour out all the contents of one’s heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that the gentlest of hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping and, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.” (Arabian Proverb). Happy couples overlook one another’s weaknesses and mistakes. They have a bigger perspective because of their friendship. They see beyond a specific behavior and love the whole person. Because of their history together, they interpret their partner’s behavior in a way that gives them the benefit of the doubt. Conflicts can be openly and calmly discussed and both can be heard without fear. They can agree to disagree.

Friendship guards our heart and our lips. Communication may not the THE most important element in a marriage, but show me good communication and I will show you respect. Respect will show up in our words as well as our actions.

Friendship means support and encouragement. Two quotes come to mind:  “A friend is one who believes in you when you have ceased to believe in yourself” and “A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.” What more can I say after those words! We often think of support as being helpful during times of disappointment and problems, but support can also be rejoicing with someone. Oscar Wilde once said, “Anybody can sympathize with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathize with a friend’s success.”

What does friendship mean to you and how does it relate to better marriages? You are welcome to share your thoughts…

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