Who’s ready to play a couples communication game?
Below are two conversations between couples. Read them both and see if you can spot the differences.
Sarah and John have been married for five years and both arrive home from work at 6:00.
Sarah: I had such a difficult day today, my boss really gave me a hard time. I am not sure if I can deal with it all.
John: Yea? Me too, my boss said that I did a good job on the project and said that because of my strong performance he is putting me on another project! It makes me not want to do well! It just means more work! The others on the project are doing less than me and we make the same money!
Sarah: My boss told me that I made a mistake with the report that I submitted and I will have to get it corrected. I explained to her that there was no time to do it and she told me that if I needed to come in over the weekend then that is what I would have to do. I try so hard John and she just doesn’t understand!
John: Yea Sarah, I hear you, with this new project I am going to have to work an extra hour each day to be able to juggle it. It is stressful.
Sarah: I know I can do it, I just can’t believe I made that mistake and I really don’t want to work on the weekend.
John: I know I can do both of these projects too but I would love to see a raise someday. It is the other wokers who get promoted and what I do just isn’t recognized by my boss or the company. I mean why even try?
Eric and Sue have been married for five years and both arrive home from work after 6:00.
Sue: I had such a difficult day today, my boss really gave me a hard time. I am not sure if I can deal with it all.
Eric: I am sorry Sue, I know you work hard, what happened?
Sue: She told me I made a mistake on the report and I have to correct it. I said I don’t have time and she said I may have to do it on the weekend!
Eric: I am so sorry Sue that must be hard. Do you think you can do it? Is there anything I can do to help? I see how much work you do.
Sue: No, it just feels horrible. I mean, I made the mistake but I tried, I really did, and the rest of the report is fine. One mistake!
Eric: I have got you on this, if you think you need to go in on the weekend for a couple hours I can take the kids to the movies or do something fun. Know that I appreciate you even though it seems like your boss doesn’t right now. You do good things for people and are good at your job.
Sue: Thanks, how are you doing? You seem stressed too.
Eric: Yea, I had a bad day at work
Sue: What happened?
Eric: Well, my boss said that I did a good job on the project I have been working on and said that because of my strong performance he is putting me on another project!
Sue: Oh, is that a good thing or bad thing? What is happening, why are you stressed?
Eric: It makes me upset because it feels like I am being punished for doing well. He should give me a raise and then more work, but not more work for the same money.
Sue: Oh, I am sorry to hear that Eric. What do you think you’re going to do?
What is the difference between these two conversations?
Take a moment and consider the difference between these two conversations? They both cover the same topics but the interaction is not the same.
The answer is that the first conversation is a parallel conversation while the second is a supportive conversation.
In a relationship it is important to become aware of the types of conversations you are having as a couple. Often when two people talk with one another it can become a conversation in parallel. This is one in which both people are talking but neither is really addressing the concerns of the other. They are instead taking turns discussing their thoughts but not necessarily addressing or attending to the thoughts and feelings of the other.
Parallel conversations in relationships can result in feelings of isolation and loneliness which, if left unchecked, can lead to feelings of resentment because one partner may end up feeling invisible. This is because one or both people in the relationship can feel unheard, unvalidated, and not understood. If you find yourself saying things like, “he doesn’t understand me,” or, “she never listens to me or pays attention to what I say,” or, “I just feel so lonely in this relationship,” these are indications of possible parallel conversation styles.
It is important to understand that we can all become self-absorbed sometimes and that this is not a problem. It only begins to surface as a problem in relationships if it becomes a pattern in conversations and the pattern is not recognized and becomes habitual.
In couples counseling when resentment is present I look for parallel conversation patterns as one of the first reasons for these feelings and I work to help the couple change their ways of talking to more supportive conversations.
Supportive conversations are those in which one person attends to the feeling and concerns of the other. Attending is one of the biggest things that can help a relationship because it puts caring into action. Conversations become about the other’s feelings and validating what is important to that person.
A great and easy way to change a relationship conversation style from parallel to supportive is to simply remind yourself to ask at least three questions of the other person when an idea or situation is brought up. I hope this is of some help.Share
About the Author:Dr. Christopher Hall, Phd, LCSW is a counselor, author, and educator in Wilmington, NC. He is well published in the area of clinical counseling with individuals and groups in top tier peer reviewed journals. He has 16 years counseling experience.