Communication is a complicated process. For one thing, we do it even when we don’t mean to do so. It is impossible to not communicate. We all like positive communication and we generally respond positively to it. On the other hand, we tend to dislike negative communication and often choose to respond negatively to it.
Sometimes things can get overwhelmingly negative, permeating every aspect of our conversations so that it becomes increasingly difficult to have positive communication. When this happens the signs are predictable: escalation, devaluation, negative interpretation and assumptions, and more. In any mutual interaction, if these elements continue long enough, the relationship will fail.
Détente is one of those words that emerged from the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union based upon the MAD doctrine of military strategy. MAD is an acronym for Mutually Assured Destruction which is the assumption that there are enough nuclear weapons on each side that, in the event of a nuclear war, both sides could be assured that they would both cease to exist. In other words, to use nuclear weapons is to commit national suicide. It is that fear of their use coupled with the need to communicate and do business together in a global economy that led to the détente doctrine.
When communication begins to break down in destructive arguments, innuendo and insinuations things are said that would never be said in calmer times. The spiral of current insults piles on top of heaps of cutting comments from months and years before. In military terms, ammunition lies everywhere just waiting for someone to pick up and lob at the other person in order to win the hopeless battle to nowhere resulting in incredible pain and anguish.
One of the first challenges of helping couples move out of these destructive patterns is working to develop a safe place. Among the most powerful tools is the time-out or stop-action rule. Simply stated, when the warning signs indicate that a couple is heading into a destructive pattern of communication three things must happen immediately.
First, one of the partners must declare a time out before things get out of control. Second, the other partner who has received the time out request must respect it immediately and cease the conversation. Finally, the partner that called the time out must set up a time to re-engage the issue at hand with cooler minds, careful wording and thoughtful consideration for their partner. This is a promise that must be kept so that the other partner knows that the topic will not evaporate into denial. In essence, the couple agrees to a détente agreement to conduct business as usual in the midst of great tensions, knowing that they will return to the negotiating table to work out their differences in a respectful but honest atmosphere.
This one intervention can go a long way towards creating the safe environment within which useful…even therapeutic…conversations can begin to emerge that will rebuild the bridges of trust and mutual respect that are so critical to successful relationships. The key ingredients are trust and safety. Once those are in place the issues that need to be addressed can be discussed with some other basic tools that will open the door to intimacy and maturity in a relationship.
This is an arena in which Marriage and Family Therapists can be the most helpful because they perceive problems differently than most conventional approaches. We begin with the assumption that people really do desire healthy relationships. Therapy helps people through the obstacles and transitions that often get us sidetracked. The goal is to help everyone get on with living life and reaching out for their potential. Email Steve to set up a free first appointment.