Article 4. I'm Married But Feel Alone; We Barely Talk
The Need For Relationship-Building Communications 

By Reuben E. Gross, PhD, ABP, ABPP, LMFT

Couple in Counseling


Relationship-Building Communications Are The Key
To Emotional Bonding & Intimacy

This article addresses the issues of women who say "My husband is quiet,"  "We barely talk," " We're like two ships passing at night,"  We're like roommates." "I feel lonely in this relationship."  Couples who say "We don't communicate effectively, we're always fighting" have a different problem which is addressed in the article "How to Complain Diplomatically, Disagree and Yet Argue Constructively Without Fighting" (click here)

 
How Do We Assess a Couples' Relationship-Building Communications?

A.  Introduction

When spouses describe their communication with each other, many wives complain that their husbands or male partners "don't open up." This phenomenon is very common in marriages and is often a source of great unhappiness to the female partner. In fact men and women do differ from each other in a number of ways including their desire and facility to explore and share their emotions, and in their need for closeness and intimacy due to differences in their physiological makeup.

In the famous Broadway musical "South Pacific" a sailor makes the plaintive plea "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" Today, more and more women, frustrated by their husband's lack of need/desire to discuss his day, express his feelings or go into emotional detail about his experiences, raise the converse question: "Why can't a man be more like a woman?" The answer is: men and women are hardwired differently. This point has been amply described on a psychological level by John Grey, PhD in his book "Men Are From Mars; Women Are From Venus."

Physiological studies also point in the same direction. In one study, adult males and females were assigned the same task. Measurements of their brains while performing the task showed that different parts of the brain were activated by the different sexes.

Differences in actual brain structure have been noted and measured by Jay Giedd, Chief of Brain Imaging at the National Institute of Mental Health. In this 20-year-old brain mapping project. MRI scans of boys' and girls' brains were done  on subjects beginning at age 9 and continuing till age 20. The findings were reported in 2010 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The scientists found differences in the brain's cortex between males and females, quite notable in the early ages, decreasing slowly in difference, but still clearly dissimilar even as the subjects reached the age of twenty.

Can the differences in the nature of men and woman affect what they talk about to each other? Can we specifically  measure their concerns, and what they say in the areas that bear upon the personal relationship between a husband and wife?

B. Need For The Creation of an Assessment  Form To Measure a Couple's Relationship-Building Communications

In the course of many years of practice in marriage/couples counseling, I have found a number of excellent tools that help professionals assess a variety of communication skills and with each discovery was happy to increase my repertoire of diagnostic instruments for use with my clients. These questionnaires focus on the competence of each member of a couple in the crucial skills needed to argue constructively, negotiate differences, and solve problems especially in situations where each partner has strong feelings about the matter. However, in spite of all my studies, I haven't found any tools which assess a person's behavior in the area of communication skills that focus on self-revelation, emotional expression, exploration of the partner's feelings, ego-boosting and other verbal behaviors such as expressing appreciation, praise, and statements of love that are crucial for sharing, emotional bonding, and building an intimate relationship.

I created the "Measuring a Couples' Relationship-Building Communications" assessment form to address this gap in the available communication measuring instruments.  My goal in developing this assessment form is not to delve into the crucially important consideration of how effectively the couple communicates when trying to solve a problem but rather to investigate the frequency and nature of the couple's communication efforts in different types of "bonding communications" and "constructive overtures" to each other. The questionnaire spans a broad range of statements, and behavioral approaches that form a foundation for relationship-building, bonding and intimacy.

I have been using this diagnostic instrument successfully to help individuals assess their strengths, weaknesses and needs along the cited dimensions. This questionnaire has assessment value for the marriage counselor as well as the couple. A three-way discussion in the counselor's office creates a friendly setting in which each spouse could sensitively reveal valuable information about his emotional needs to his partner for the purpose of mutual understanding, accommodation, bonding, growth in the relationship and greater marital satisfaction.

Can men be trained to be more sensitive to the emotional components of a situation? Yes. Will it change their personalities? That depends on how you define personality. If "personality" includes internal changes (greater awareness) as well as external changes (behavior), then the answer is "yes." Men, as well as women, can learn to alter their personality to better accommodate the emotional needs of their partners by becoming more revealing of their emotions, more interested in their partner's life, and by becoming more skillful in making warm,  constructive, ego-boosting communications, and behaviors to enhance each others happiness.

C1. Description of the "Measuring a Couples' Relationship-Building Communications" Assessment Form

The assessment form is composed of fifteen questions with sub-categories. Each category describes a type of relationship-building communication or interpersonal behavior the goal of which is to promote closeness with one's partner. During the course of this article the following terms will be used interchangeably to describe the twelve questions on the list:

Relationship-building communication, relation-building statement, constructive overture, approach-behavior, and bonding-communication. These terms, in themselves, describe the panorama of actions that are being addressed.

Examples of Relationship-Building Communications and Constructive Overtures

A few examples of some of the bonding-communication approaches and constructive behaviors, that are assessed, are listed below.  We grade each partner's tendency (or lack there of) to:

  • Initiate talk about his day, ask about partner's day, share past and present experiences.
  • Reveal and discuss feelings, share emotional reactions to experiences, reveal emotional needs, show sensitivity to partner's emotional reactions and needs.
  • Initiate discussion of problems in the relationship or at least show a willingness to participate in a partner-initiated discussion of the intricacies and fine points of the relationship.    
  • Listen attentively and respectfully with an open mind to one's partner's thoughts and feelings about any subject under discussion and respond appropriately.
  • Express appreciation, recognition, love and other ego-boosting and relationship-building thoughts and emotions.

C2. Administration and Use of This Assessment Form

The paragraphs that follow give an abridged overview of how I use this tool with couples:

Scoring:

Each member of the couple is given an assessment form and independently rates himself and his partner on all of the fifteen categories of interpersonal behaviors listed in this questionnaire.

1. Each person assigns a score to himself, based on the frequency with which he makes each of the types of bonding statements to his mate.

2. 
In a separate score he rates how frequently his mate makes that type of statement, or displays that type of approach-behavior to him. The rating ranges from "3" (frequently) to "0" (never). For questions like "verbally expresses praise" a "3" (frequently), is a good score, For questions like ""listener misinterprets or mind reads" a score of "0" is a good score.

Since each partner gives two scores per behavior (one score for himself, and one score for his mate), we end up with a total of four scores for each item.

Reviewing and discussing the scores:

We approach the test results by discussing one item at a time. For example, when discussing the item: "Expresses appreciation to partner," we ask each person what grade he gave himself and how satisfied he is with the frequency with which he communicates his feelings of appreciation. Does he think there is room for improvement?

We then ask his partner what grade she gave him, and how satisfied is she with the frequency with which her partner expresses his appreciation to her, how important this is to her, and how often would she like her partner to declare his love appreciation to her. Does she think that there is room for improvement?

Different Strokes for Different Folks:

During the course of the evaluation, it frequently becomes evident to the couple that some items are more important to one spouse and other items are more important to the other spouse. This is so because partners differ in their need for specific types of bonding behavior and/or closeness. Consequently, people differ in how frequently they expect their spouse to make a certain type of statement or display a certain type of bonding behavior.

During the exploratory discussion that takes place during counseling, we compare the grades that each individual assigns to himself with the scores that his spouse assigns to him. Each person learns the frequency-expectation (need- level) that his partner requires for satisfaction in each of the areas that are assessed.  Spouses are often unaware of their partner's needs since individuals frequently differ from each other in their emotional needs and each person generally assumes that their mate has the same needs (or lack of needs) that they do. The " Measuring a Couple's Relationship-Building Communication" assessment form addresses this problem. The questionnaire not only helps individuals assess their own needs but in the ensuing discussion also affords them an opportunity to share that important information with their partner thus facilitating mutual understanding, accommodation and fulfillment of expectancies.

D. Goals of This Assessment Form

The questionnaire is administered to couples in order to achieve a number of goals, including:

1. Helping each person clarify:

a. For himself: his self evaluation regarding his competence in relationship-building skills….often encompassing areas to which he never paid attention in the past, nor  was he aware of their importance in the marriage.

b. The general style of his interactions with his partner

c. His level of satisfaction/dissatisfaction with his own competence/performance in terms of meeting his partner's needs...

2. To help each person learn his partner's need level for the behaviors measured, as well as his own need level for each of the behaviors measured.

3. To help each person learn how his partner evaluates him i.e., his partner's level of satisfaction/dissatisfaction with his competence/performance.

4. And finally, the crucial part of the marriage counseling process:

"Contracting" with each person to improve upon strengths, minimize deficiencies, and do his best to meet his/her partner's reasonable expectations for the constructive overtures and bonding communications enumerated in this assessment form. For a related article on meeting your partner's needs and expectations, click here for "The Hidden Agenda in Relationships."

Women who complain about their spouse's quiet nature, inability or reluctance to "open up" and couples who present the problem "We don't talk to each other," are expressing their unhappiness about a deficit in the approach/bonding behaviors that are targeted and assessed in my questionnaire. These individuals are aware that their relationship suffers from the lack of personal revelation, sharing, bonding and relationship-building communications that people exchange with those who are closest to them and with whom they wish to develop intimacy. These women yearn for the intimacy they may have yearned for, or actually had when they first began going with each other. Women with this complaint will often say that feel alone because they hardly know their husband, don't know how he really feels about a lot of things in the relationship, see him as a virtual stranger or a good roommate.

E. Summary

In this article I have described the reason for my development of a new assessment form and how it is used in my couple counseling sessions. Understandably, each situation is unique and the discussion that evolves as we go through each person's rating of self and partner on this questionnaire is different with each couple. Our review and discussion of the grades that partners give to each other alerts both members to the importance of initiating, following through, and increasing constructive overtures to each other with the goal of increasing bonding and intimacy. This process helps each member of the couple develop a more close-knit, intimate and fulfilling relationship with their spouse.

F. Conclusion

Spouses do not need to go through life feeling distant or disconnected from their partners because of a lack of relationship-building, constructive overtures,Individuals who seek greater closeness and intimacy with their partners can achieve their goals! and bonding-communications .

End of Article 4: We Barely Talk; I'm Married But Feel Alone

For more Relationship Articles please click here.

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