The 2 Most Common Issues Couples Come to Marriage Counseling With

In this blog, I will discuss two of the most common communication issues that I have seen couples struggle with. Most importantly, I’ll share ways to approach these problems if you notice them in your own relationship.

Start Gently When Discussing Difficult Issues in Your RelationshipPhoto of a heart on the ground l Couples Therapy & Marriage Counseling l St. Pete, FL 33701

First, there is the issue that preeminent couples researcher and therapist, John Gottman, refers to as “harsh start-ups.” A harsh start-up entails starting a communication to your partner with criticism or an attack. Below is an example:

Harsh start-up: I’m so sick of you talking over me. For once, can you just listen!”

The spouse saying above statement may have justifiable cause for such frustration with their partner. However, using such a harsh start-up will likely put their partner on the defensive and likely not lead to any change. You can say the same thing more effectively with a gentle start-up.

Gentle start-up: I’m feeling like I am not being heard here. Please let me share this with you without interrupting.

Communication is Key for Successful Couples

To avoid harsh start-ups, some rules-of-thumb are to start communication with “I” instead of “You,” don’t use superlatives like always and never, to state what the issue is without blame or judgment and to politely ask for what you would like to be different.

Gentle start-up: I seem to be cleaning the kitchen most days and am feeling frustrated. We agreed to alternate weeks. I would like for you to be mindful of when it is your week, please.

Couples Counseling Teaches You Effective Communication

Photo of a happy older couple - Couples & marriage counseling available - St. Petersburg, FL 33701Another prevalent issue for married couples or those in committed relationships is trying to have important conversations when emotions are very high. It’s hard to communicate when you are emotional about something. Gottman uses the term “flooding” to describe being emotionally overwhelmed, and of being hijacked by our emotions to the point where cognitive processing is quite limited.

Flooding comes from a common defense mechanism. Basically, this is a defense mechanism people may use when the sympathetic nervous system response, popularly known as “fight or flight.” After the fight/flight response is triggered by a perceived attack, such as a partner using a harsh start-up with us, the thinking brain is relegated to the background. Therefore, you are so upset that you literally cannot think clearly. So, when a person is flooded due to the flight/flight response, a constructive conversation can be nearly impossible.

Take a Time Out

There is an old saying that we “never go to bed angry.” This make sense that couples not let issues go undiscussed. Unfortunately, this belief leads couples to believe that delaying conversations is a problem. However, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. It is far better to wait for flooding and the flight/flight response to calm down before trying to tackle difficult conversations with your partner. You will find that you are more clear-headed, to stay calm, and to express yourself more gently, compassionately, and effectively.

How do you know when you may be experiencing flooding?

Below are some common signs you & your spouse/partner need a break:Happy young married couple - Marriage & Couples Therapy - St. Pete, FL 33701

  • Feeling flushed (your face/head feels hot)

  • Feeling your heartbeat pounding in your chest

  • Tingling sensation in your fingers and toes

  • Crying

  • Feelings of anger or rage

  • Feeling like your stomach is in knots

Experiencing flooding? Here’s a quick tip.

The best guidance for couples is to take time-outs when flooding happens. And because flooding can so limit rational thought, I encourage couples to adopt an agreed upon code word to use when one or both partners have recognized that flooding has occurred and a break is needed. The code word can simply be “time out” or “code red.”

When a couple adopts a code word, they have agreed that they will give each other space in which to recover from the fight/flight response. Using time-outs does NOT mean issues go unaddressed, but rather they are addressed at times when both partners can be most effective.

During time-outs, each partner is expected to calm and center themselves. At times, this may mean even taking a break from the conversation overnight to “sleep on it.”

Dr. Jenn Self l Gottman Therapy l Improve Communication in Your Relationship l Marriage and Couples Therapy l McNulty Counseling & Wellness 33701

Meet McNulty Counseling’s Marriage Therapist

Dr. Jennifer Self holds a doctorate in couples and marriage counseling and is also a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. She is passionate about providing mental health counseling and couples therapy for over 15 years now. She sees adult clients (college-age) and up for couples therapy and welcomes all types of couples, including married, partnered, LGBTQ, and polyamorous at our St. Petersburg, FL counseling clinic. Dr. Jenn also enjoys treating anxiety disorders, depression, and gender identity exploration.

Begin Marriage & Couples Counseling in St. Pete today!

Are you and your partner or spouse ready to work on your communication? Do you want to see if your relationship can be saved? I’d love to begin couples &/or marriage therapy with you. You can begin by contacting McNulty Counseling at 727-344-9867!

Are one of you still unsure about starting marriage counseling? Learn about the benefits of couples & marriage counseling, what to expect from couples counseling and how to talk to a partner who is resistant to marriage counseling on our mental health blog.