The husband sits in one chair. His wife sits facing him. They lean toward each other at exactly a 12-degree angle. Their eyes focus on their partner's face.
The wife talks first. She has a complaint. Her husband listens intently and repeats what he hears. He not only tries to repeat the substance of what she says, but also struggles for words to describe her emotions.Eventually it is his turn to talk, her turn to listen and repeat. As they speak, their cheeks flush with frustration. Perspiration shines on his upper lip. Her eyes spurt tears.
They are a couple in the throes of communication.
You can find couples like this in any town in Utah, couples who want to stop fighting and start solving problems, couples willing to take a class or read a self-help book and follow a set of prescribed exercises to change the way they talk to each other.
"In the class I teach I say that perhaps as few as 5 percent of couples ever achieve intimacy," says Dee Hadley, a family counselor and instructor at the University of Utah's LDS Institute of Religion.
"Intimacy has nothing to do with how much you care," he says, and everything to do with how well you communicate. Hadley believes Americans are culturally conditioned to be "right." "We have very little interest in trying to see another point of view."`Why is it so hard to talk to the person you love?" my husband and I asked the instructor on the first night of our couples communication class at the University of Utah.
Ten weeks later, when half the class had dropped out, those of us left were still asking him that question.
"You can only change yourself," our teacher, Steve Smith, told us that first night. We nodded. But his words didn't sink in.
My husband, Gary, was the first to grasp that to change the way we talk to each other we'd have to be willing to change ourselves. After we'd been taking the class for about six weeks, I noticed he wasn't reading the textbook and didn't seem too interested in practicing the empathic listening skills we were assigned as homework.
Was he losing interest in couples communication?
"It's true," he said. "When we signed up for this class I thought it would be a good thing for you. But when I realized I couldn't change you, that I could only change myself, I kind of lost interest."
He got interested in the class again, just as it ended. By that time I'd figured out that changing myself would be difficult, perhaps painful and involve being better organized. "I can't do this," I told myself. "I can't be this noble."Michelle and Don Wallace took a couples communication class two years ago. They say it saved their marriage.
He was in the habit of making decisions quickly. She was in the habit of going along, only to realize later she wasn't happy about going along.
When she tried to change the plans, he'd feel manipulated. "She'd accuse me of being overbearing," Don says. "I'd criticize her. She'd counterattack. Every time we'd try to solve something we'd go around and around."
It may sound like Michelle needed to learn to express herself better. And taking the class, she did learn to express herself more clearly.
But that's not what she says is the most important thing she learned about communicating with her husband.
"The main thing I learned was to listen instead of forming an answer while my husband is talking," Michelle says. "You can learn so much about a person by listening."
"The biggest thing I learned was to think about it a little bit before I discuss something controversial," Don says. "I tell myself to listen closely. To explain my feelings."
Most couples find it artificial at first to set up rules about how they are going to talk, Smith says.
Even to sit down at a regular time to talk about your feelings might sound corny, says Larry Brady, a local therapist who spoke recently at the Governor's Conference on Families. "But if you do this once a day for a week," he says, "just listen without interrupting for five minutes and focus on feelings - I guarantee you'll feel closer to each other."The Wallaces still can't bring themselves to use the lingo of reflective listening, says Michelle. Statements that begin with, "I hear you saying . . ." are too trendy for their tastes.
"It sounds canned," says Michelle. "But I do say similar things like, `Your tone indicates to me that you are angry. Can we set up a time to talk about this?' "
She says that by the time the classes were over, neither the Wallaces nor the other couples in their group felt quite comfortable using the listening and expressing skills they were taught. They still argued, sweated and cried when they tried.
But they kept practicing, she says, and it's coming more easily. "I use the textbook as a reference now," Michelle says. "I use the skills at work."
As for my husband and me, we've had a few successes. Sometimes what could have been an argument ends up with each of us feeling understood and not really caring, after all, if we changed the other's mind.
We haven't solved any major problems, but we've learned that whatever we talk about goes better if we stick to the rules.
Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks, two therapists who happen to be married to each other, came to Salt Lake City recently to promote their new book, "Conscious Loving." The trick, they say, is to be allies. Listen to your spouse explore his or her feelings. That's enough, the Hendricks believe. That's intimacy.
Michelle Wallace says communicating is work. It took months to see the results of her labor. "I look at Don's good points more often. I'm more accepting.
"I guess I'm learning he doesn't have to be perfect to be perfect."
8 steps can help you communicate better
1. Listen intently. Absorb his or her mood. Show you care by your posture, head nodding and saying "uh-huh."
2. Concentrate not on what the other is saying about events but on how he or she reacts internally to the events.
3. Put yourself in the other's place. Ask yourself, "What would I be feeling?" "What conflicts would I be experiencing?" "What would I be thinking - positively or negatively - about myself as a person?"
4. Form an empathic statement in your mind. Something like, "It seems that you are furious because I control the travel budget." Don't say it aloud yet.
5. Eliminate words that might seem threatening. Your edited statement should be more mild than your first one. "It sounds like you are bothered because I control the travel budget."
6. Let your tone of voice show that you appreciate knowing how your partner feels and you respect those feelings.
7. Cut your statement short if the other is losing interest.
8. If the other corrects your statement ("No, that's not what I meant, I said . . .") accept the correction readily.