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by Timothy Cole

Many of the problems married couples face stem from inadequate problem-solving skills. Communication intended to resolve problems, itself becomes combative, hurtful, exhausting, and unfruitful, leaving both parties with little to celebrate or to be satisfied with in from their interaction. The following 7 guidelines can help bring order and purpose to the communication process, such that couples can indeed resolve differences and still remain friends. 

#1 Think through the purpose of what you are about to say, and communicate the purpose clearly to your spouse. eg. "I just want you to understand what I'm feeling right now.", "I want to make a request that you...", "I'm sharing this with you as information..." etc. By doing this couples can avoid "ambushing" each other with emotional outbursts or confusing demands.

#2 Limit your discussion to one topic, complete the purpose (#1 below) bring it to a close, and take a break. If one partner heads off topic, respond with, "I'd be willing to discuss that at another time." If the discussion gets combative or repetitive, take a break and come back to it later. Try, "I need to organize my thoughts. Can we come back to this in 20 mins.?"

#3 Avoided loaded words and phrases that put the other person on the defensive, such as "You always...", "You never...", "Why do you...". Change to "When you do/say...I feel hurt/disappointed/dismayed, etc." or try, "What is your purpose in doing/saying..." If your partner uses a loaded phrase or an attacking tone, respond with, "Could you please rephrase that?".

#4 Don't get hung up on the specific words or phrases used (even if they're loaded), but try to understand and respond to the emotion behind the words. When a partner feels like his/her emotions are not understood, there is the tendency to ramp up the intensity of the words, in order to get the message across of how one is feeling.

#5 Differentiate between desires and expectations. A desire is something one hopes might happen. An expectation is something one expects will happen. Desires must be communicated in order for your partner to be aware of them, and your partner should have the freedom to decline without being "punished". Expectations should be limited to areas of right and wrong, or where there is a prior agreement. If an expectation is not met it is valid to go through a resolution process.

#6 Take the time to clarify and confirm the sender's message by repeating it back in summary form (eg. "You want me to know that you were frustrated that I didn't have supper ready before you got home last night."). It seems mechanical, but avoids misunderstandings, and helps clarify the purpose of the exchange. Don't begin discussing solutions until this step has been completed.

#7 Don't discuss complex or emotionally charged issues late in the evening. Both partners are likely to be tired and the discussion likely to become emotional, yielding little by way of mutually satisfying solutions. Rather, suggest delaying the discussion to another time earlier in the day. Just make sure this is not a delay to avoid the issue, so be sure to reschedule.

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