15. Poor Commnication - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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15. Poor Commnication

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Roles Rigidity Repair in Relationships

Roles, Rigidity, Repair, and Renovation in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Zimmerman (2000) reported that despite low societal status and value for the homemaker, the career partner often expressed respect and appreciation for the homemaker.  Feeling valued by career partners was related to higher self-esteem.  Zimmerman speculated that, "This feeling of respect and value may be the result of good communication skills among the couples" (page 348).  Couples who have solid and consistent connections for mutual support and interaction are more cohesive.  Cohesion is the ability to share love, intimacy, closeness, status, and respect within the relationship.  In contrast, "Disengagement is one of the polar extremes along the approach-avoidance continuum, with disengagement reflecting extreme avoidance tendencies capable over time of producing feelings of rejection, neglect, abandonment, and aggression that could lead in the most extreme situations to physical/emotional abuse (L'Abate, 1990).  Expressiveness is a communication process reflecting the ability to engage in disclosure sharing both positive and negative emotions leading toward problem solving solutions (Noller, 1984).  Conflict refers to the degree of competence members share in having their needs successfully heard, negotiated, and met (L'Abate, 1990)" (Morris and Blanton, 1998, page 29-30).

Positive communication habits and models between partners can mitigate conflicts or uncertainties about roles, equity, household work balance, and other couple's concerns.  Poor communication habits and models can create or exacerbate the negative dynamics.  Double-bind communication sends a message with two levels that do not match up.  The overt verbal communication is accompanied by a contradictory implicit communication resulting in confusion about what is really being communicated.  It is unclear what the recipient is supposed to respond to.  When double-bind type of communication occurs between partners, their balance of power may be affected.  For example, Jorell may ask, "I like this one.  Is this okay?"  It may be a real question- that is, the verbal content is the whole communication and Jorell is actually interested in and willing to accept his wife Aikira's opinion in the affirmative or negatively.  On the other hand, the question may actually be a demand that she must agree with the choice or experience anger or other consequences.  Aikira may not like the choice and answers the explicit question negatively ("I don't like it.  It's not okay."), while missing or ignoring the implicit message to agree.  She gets into trouble as a result.  The message had two incongruent meanings: choice and demand.  Jorell appears to be offering free will or choice, while actually creating an obligation for Aikira. The double-bind creates confusion about which meaning to respond to.  "I don't like it.  It's not okay" will not satisfy the partner, but "Uh, I guess its okay" may not be satisfying either as it lacks enthusiasm.  This response could also create a double-bind situation.  If Jorell takes it as confirmation without noting the doubt or hesitation, it may not work for Aikira either.

"Consequently it appears that neither of the wife's responses is satisfying to him… the husband sometimes opts to respond to the verbal meaning of the message only, disregarding the emotional indications involved (Lederer & Jackson, 1968)… the husband has selected to respond to the verbal level only to avoid quarreling with her (Lederer & Jackson)… this kind of communication between couples can be dominant, which leads to the centralization of power (Lederer & Jackson, 1968)" (Simadi et al., 2003, page 476).  Although, the couple may appear to hold relatively egalitarian roles or power is supposedly shared with comparable role designations, actual power dynamics may be skewed.  Ideally with balanced expressed and functional role divisions and shared power both partners are equally strong.  In a heterosexual couple there would be a strong husband and a strong wife constituting a stable family.  However, there can be other results in family stability:

A strong husband and a weak wife resulting in an unstable relationship, couple, or family

A weak husband and a strong wife resulting in an unstable relationship, couple, or family

A weak husband and a weak wife resulting in a somewhat stable relationship, couple, or family

Same gender couples can also have two strong partners, one strong and one weak, or two weak partners with comparable issues that may or may not have cultural gender influences that the therapist should explore.  The therapist should not assume that gay or lesbian individuals or couples have automatically set aside heteronormative expectations in a homosexual relationship.  Each relationship, couple, or family type can have its own problems.  With two strong partners, the conflict can intensify if the strength is not complemented with significant relationship- especially, communication skills.  If both partners are strong- that is, able and willing to engage in direct communication, the therapist can work with them to improve the quality of their messaging.  The therapist can use their explicit ownership of personal feelings and needs to improve empathetic connection and support.  Unfortunately, direct and strong communication can also be harsh and insensitive.  If unable change or stuck in a negative dynamic, the couple can risk getting into intractable conflict and the relationship terminating.  In couple's pairings with one strong and one weak partner, the weak partner may be prone to emotional or psychological problems.  Therapy may need to address couple's issues while simultaneously help process the weak partner's emotional and psychological stability while muting the strong partner's aggressiveness.  The communication processes and patterns in this type of couple would reflected the growing weakness of one partner.  Working on equitable communication dynamics would uncover relationship inequities as much as working on an inequitable relationship would reveal communication issues.  

The therapist would also need to be aware that a couple with a clear hierarchy with one partner as the alpha and the other as the beta does not automatically mean that there is a weak partner.  Some pairs have two strong members where both accept relative role positions in a hierarchy.  Communication for such a couple would tend to be more equitable.  They would be more similar, including in communication styles to the couple with two strong partners.  Two strong partners accepting a primary and secondary role division can be a personal choice between partners or be culturally defined and accepted.  Simadi et al. (2003, page 476) discussed how some Arabian families have both a weak husband and weak wife resulting from the lack of clear boundaries between the couple.  However, this type of family may be relatively functional as it does not operate as an independent nuclear family but operates under the care of the multi-generational extended family.  The structure of the family can differ from culture to culture with their respective communication and boundary models for functionality.  The therapist should not assume a cultural model for the relationship but instead examine the couple for their model.  Communication may be both a contributor to good or poor boundaries and a consequence of good or poor boundaries.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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