Communication in Intimate Relationships

There are many names for relationship counselling – couples counselling, couples therapy, marriage counselling, relationship therapy – but fundamentally, they refer to the same thing. Two people who are in a significant relationship feel the need or desire to improve it.

One common experience is the need for better communication. Oftentimes, clients will present with statements such as:

“Whenever we talk, we end up arguing”

“I’ve stopped telling her things because she over-reacts to everything I say”

“He just doesn’t listen to me anymore”

“We’re like flatmates – we don’t feel close at all. We barely talk to one-another”.

When you look at the communication process, in technical detail, it is a wonder that human beings are able to communicate with one-another at all!

The process involves one person sending a message that needs to be encoded by the other person, with both person’s perception and the environment and other interferences impacting on the way in which the message is sent and received. Additionally, communication barriers get in the way. These ‘roadblocks’ are responses that impact negatively on communication causing one person or the other to withdraw, become defensive or resistant.

Humanist Psychologist, Thomas Gordon, has referred to these as ‘the dirty dozen’ of communication spoilers. These include:

Criticizing: making a negative evaluation of the other person, their attitudes or actions. Eg: “You don’t help yourself”, “You always do that”, “I can’t believe you’re still going on about that”.

Name-calling: putting someone down, stereo-typing or pigeon-holing someone. Eg: “You lazy slob”, “Don’t be so dumb”, “She’s such a bimbo”.

Diagnosing: analysing why someone is behaving in a certain way, playing amateur psychologist. Eg: “You’re so passive-aggressive”, “I can read you like a book”, “I know why you’re doing this”.

Praising evaluatively: making a positive judgement on the other person (often makes one feel manipulated) Eg: “You’re always good at fixing things”, “I know you’ll do your best”.

Ordering: commanding the other person to do what you want them to do. Eg: “Call him for dinner now”, “Take the garbage out like I asked”, “Make sure you do it properly”

Threatening: trying to control the other person’s actions by warning of negative consequences. Eg: “If you don’t clean the kitchen, I just won’t bother cooking”.

Moralising: telling the other person what they should do, preaching at the other person. Eg: “You should say you’re sorry”, “You need to tell her she can’t speak to you that way”.

Excessive questioning: closed-ended questions that lead to a one word answer as opposed to opening up the conversation. Eg: “Did you get it done?”, “When did it happen”, “Are you sorry you went there?”

Advising: giving the other person a solution to their problems as opposed to simply listening. Eg: “If I were you I’d…”, “Why don’t you just tell him off”, “You need to put it on the line”.

Diverting: pushing the other’s problems aside by using distraction. Eg: “Let’s just have a drink and forget about it”, “Can we talk about something more pleasant?”, “Anyway, what else did you do today?”

Logical argument: attempting to convince the other person with an appeal to the facts or by using logic, usually without reference to the emotional factors involved. Eg: “Let’s face the facts, if you didn’t get your nails done every week, we could put that money towards saving for a holiday”.

Reassuring: trying to stop the other person from feeling negative emotions. Eg: “Don’t worry, we always pull through”, “Things often get worse before they get better”,” Nevermind, tomorrow’s a new day!”

Commonly, the above modes of communication act to stop the conversation in one way or another. Oftentimes, they invalidate what the other person is thinking or feeling and shuts down the conversation. These points are a great conversation starter for any couple who wish to improve their relationship and increase the quality of their connection. Reflecting on these ‘communication spoilers’ can allow the couple to broach issues of how each-other communicates in a non-threatening way.

At the end of the day, we all fall into habits of using many of the above barriers to communication. However, the first step towards positive change is awareness, the next is action!

An effective method of getting your message across is to use the X,Y,Z of communication.

X = the trigger or event

Y = how you feel about it

Z = the outcome or behaviour

Here’s an example: “When you take a phonecall in the middle of our dinner date (X), I feel rejected (Y), and I withdraw and go into myself (Z)”.

This method of communication identifies the trigger, how you feel and respond to it, and the behaviour or outcome that ensues. It avoids judging, blaming, moralising or criticising the other person (eg:” It’s so rude to take a phonecall in the middle of dinner”) and enables the message to be communicated in a clear and non-threatening way.




Parenting Tips For Teens

The life stage of adolescence can be a turbulent time for both parents and teens. It is a time of change and transition, presenting the opportunity for both parent and child to learn some new skills and ways of relating to one another.

Whilst there are no simple solutions, it is important to remember that this is just a stage of life, and won’t last forever. It is a time of readjusting roles within the family to accomodate the needs of each family member in a loving and respectful way.

Rather than get caught up in the everyday ‘argy-bargy’, try to broaden your perspective and keep your eyes on the bigger picture. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago since you were navigating the same uncertain terrain that is the journey of adolescence. The following tips may help you to bridge the gap……

12 Things Your Teenager Needs You To Know

  1. He isn’t trying to hurt you, he is trying to get his needs met (albeit in an inappropriate or unacceptable manner).
  2. He is not a child, nor an adult, he is in a lonely place of being somewhere in-between.
  3. He is battling hormones and chemical changes in his body.
  4. It is a highly emotional time and he is often overwhelmed by his own emotional and physical reactions (particularly anger).
  5. Anger = disappointment, sadness, frustration, grief, stress, and all the emotions in-between. He is struggling to understand them himself and in the confusion they come out as anger (fuelled by hormones).
  6. He is acting impulsively, not intentionally.
  7. He lives in the present and is incapable of planning ahead and looking into the future, so you need to help him make the links, but not dwell too much on the future. Adolescence is a life stage within itself, to be enjoyed for what it is and not just a training ground for adulthood.
  8. He feels compelled to challenge boundaries, as he is trying to test the knowledge, values and rules he learnt as a child and find his place in the world as a young man.
  9. He is pulling away from you, not because he doesn’t love you, but because he needs the freedom to establish friendships and a broader network of support outside of the family. Don’t take it personally.
  10. He still needs clear boundaries and black and white consequences.
  11. He needs to know that you will follow through on your promises (rewards and consequences) in order to be able to trust and respect you.
  12. He needs a supportive, structured external environment to stabilise the instable internal environment he is currently experiencing (ie: regular family meals, a set bed-time, curfew, and clear black and white rules and consequences)


You may be under pressure, but he is under more . It’s an unsettling and confusing time for him, and he needs to know that you understand that. Life is already difficult for him, don’t make it worse.

Prepare, rather than punish. Never forget that whilst the current problem needs to be dealt with, you want to use the circumstance to lovingly guide your teen into being equipped and prepared for adult life in the real world.

Don’t just say “no”. The word “no” should be followed up with a “because” so that your teen can understand the logic behind your reasoning. He may not like what you have to say, but he needs to understand it and learn to accept it (this helps him to learn and understand that things won’t always go his way in life, and that’s OK)

Be the grown-up, don’t get hooked into fights. When your teen gets argumentative, engage him, using a calm voice. Try not to get defensive when he is challenging you (that is his job at this age! He is challenging your values as he goes about forming his own). If things are escalating, say “I’m sorry, I’m not prepared to discuss this any further at this stage, I’d like us to talk about this later, when we’ve both calmed down?”)

Speak to your adolescent as you would like to be spoken to. Speak to him with respect (even when he doesn’t return the favour!). Speaking down to him only diminishes his value and lowers his self-esteem.

Aim for responsibility and freedom, not control. Stop trying to “make” your teen have better grades, more respect or responsibility. Instead, think of ways that he can be free to choose and experience consequences, so that he learns the laws of cause and affect. Say to him “You have the opportunity here to make a wise choice, you can choose this or you can decide to do that’.

Offer him a clear choice, and a clear consequence. For example, if your teen says he is too sick to go school, but you feel he may just be ‘faking it’, say “Ok, if you’re not feeling well you can stay home from school today. But you need to stay in bed and sleep or read a book, because a sick body needs to rest and recover, not play computer or watch TV. If I find out that you have been doing the latter, then that tells me that you are not really sick and are just lying to get out of school. Lying is not acceptable, so the consequence would be no computer for a week”.  Then connect with your teen and explore the real issue behind not wanting to go to school. Say “Is there any particular reason you don’t want to go to school today? Is anything worrying you?” This gives your teen the opportunity to discuss any physical (tiredness, bullying?), emotional (stress, depression, anxiety?) or social (friendship issues, student/teacher relationship problems?) he may be having. You can then help him to problem solve.

Be your teens No.1 fan. Let him know that you will always go in to bat for him in a fair and reasonable way. You are there to help and support him, not trip him up and punish him and throw him to the lions. Let him know that there is nothing too bad that he can’t tell you, and that together you can solve anything. He needs to know that he can always count on you to be there for him, not sell him out.

Love your teen more than you need to be loved. Everyone likes to accepted by others, but as the parent you need to put his needs above your need to be liked. Resist the temptation to publicly put him down and distance yourself from him. You can love your teen, but not his behaviour. All teens make mistakes, that’s how they learn. Look at the cause of his behaviour, not the effect.

Don’t live in fear. Remember that this is merely a stage that your teen is going through. It is not permanent. This is not who he is, it is just what he is experiencing (ie: he is feeling angry, doesn’t mean he is an angry person). It is just for now, not forever!

Reflect on your own upbringing. Often we repeat parenting patterns without challenging them. How often have you caught yourself sounding like your own mother or father? Remember back to when you were a teen and how you felt. Look at what worked for you, and what didn’t work and analyse why.

Respect difference and individuality.  Give your teen the freedom to express his own individuality and to be different from you in culture, dress, and style. Learn to pick your battles, and be secure enough to know that you are not being judged as a person or parent by the choices your teen makes. He is becoming his own person. Celebrate him in his journey of self-discovery and personal expression. (He won’t always want pink hair!)

Dont accept disrespect. It is not OK for your teen to disrespect or abuse you. Name-calling, threatening, sarcastic retorts or yelling or intimidating behaviour are not acceptable. Explain to him that you will respect what he has to say, but only when he expresses himself in a respectful way.

Tolerate your teen’s anger. Unless you’re being really mistreated, allow your teen to be angry with you and do not withdraw from him. Listen, validate his feelings and feed them back to him so that he can learn to understand what it is he is feeling. Try and help him to make sense of what he is feeling and break it down, this takes the heat out of it and helps him to understand the different types of emotions he is experiencing. Once he knows what it is, he no longer feels scared by it. For example, you might say “You’re sounding really angry, you felt let down when the teacher didn’t let you sit next to your friends like she said she would. It is disappointing when people don’t follow through on their promises”.

Help him to problem solve. Ask him, “What do you think you can do? What are your options?” Encourage him to share his problem and then assist him to be part of the solution. This empowers him to take responsibility for his situation, rather than sitting back and being a victim or relying on you to solve all his problems for him as you did when he was a child.

The 3 Golden Rules:

These three simple rules can govern all choices your teen makes. Explain to him:“You may do anything in the world, as long as:

  1. You don’t harm yourself
  2. You don’t harm other people
  3. You don’t harm the environment”.

These ‘Golden Rules’ are a good litmus test to guide both you and your teen through the obstacles of adolescence. They help to get perspective on the big and little issues in life, and prevent power struggles. They encourage rational thought and problem solving techniques and help your teen to ‘think through’ their actions. As the parent, they help you to challenge your own values and decide whether you are simply pushing your opposing values onto your teen or whether or not you have real cause for concern.

For example, your teen wants to get a tattoo…. One could argue that the teen is hurting themselves (ie: the process is painful), the teen may limit future job opportunities… but really, are they hurting anybody? It may be ‘hurting’ your values, or offending your sensibilities, but at the end of the day, it comes down to personal choice and personal responsibility. In applying the 3 Golden Rules, you and your teen have the opportunity to explore all the issues and talk it through, in a mature and responsible way. It offers the teen the freedom to make an informed choice and to take responsibility for the outcome.

Remember that he is separate from you. He may have your genes, but he also has his own free will. He will repeat mistakes you have made in the past (you can’t save him from it) and he will make decisions that you wish he wouldn’t (you can’t stop him, and to insist only creates resentment). Show him the same personal respect that you expect him to show you and others. Adolescence is a time of differentiation. If he doesn’t individualise now, he will later, at greater effect. Adults who haven’t had the opportunity to individualise at the appropriate age (ie: 14 – 21 years) are more vulnerable to suffering ‘mid-life crisis’ from age 35 – 50 y/old. Better to do it now when there is less to risk and less people to be harmed or affected by his actions.

Reflect on the positive. Praise your teen for all his positive attributes. Notice the little changes in him as he matures. Credit him for listening and weighing up the consequences and making a wise choice. Try to keep some lightness around both you and him – laughter and humour can be good diffusers of tension!

Pat yourself on the back. This is a difficult rite of passage for him and a rite of parenting for you. You are doing your best. Nobody is perfect and we all make mistakes along the way. Be as kind and as loving to yourself as you are to him. Together, you will both ride through this and come out the other side with increased wisdom. See the challenges as an opportunity for you to both grow as people, and be thankful for the journey.