Psychotherapist Gabriela Vilar, MA in Counselling Psychology, talks about common mistakes couples make when communicating their needs and frustrations to their partner. She is involved in the counselling field for over ten years and she is currently dedicated to her private practice in Ajax and Richmond Hill, ON Canada, where she supports individuals and families going through life challenges and transitions.
As a therapist, I am sure you heard many stories and concerns when you are counselling couples. In your experience, what is the most common issue you find that threatens the success of a relationship?
Gabriela Vilar: If I have to choose one, I would certainly say communication.
In your opinion, what is it about communication that makes it complicated to feel understood?
Gabriela Vilar: Well, there are a many factors to consider, but I would be happy to name the main and most common ones. Being able to develop a clear and respectful communication style is a big one! Many times we repeat all sort of unhelpful family patterns that really hurt our ability to communicate clearly and respectfully. Also, I would say that being able to choose the right time to discuss issues is another very important factor that many couples fail to identify. Meaning choosing to discuss things when you are in the right state of mind and at the right time. When we are upset, in avoidance or in denial we are not in the right state of mind to make ourselves clear or to hear what our partner is trying to communicate. So that is when timing is very important; if you know you are not in the right mood it is wiser to postpone the discussion for later.
There is a common concept out there that it is good to solve things in the moment to avoid dragging it and building resentment. What are your thoughts about it?
Gabriela Vilar: You are right, that is a common concept and I agree with it as long as the two partners are in an overall composed state of mind. If one or both are agitated, the chances of reaching a successful outcome are seriously compromised since the defenses are up and it is hard to think clearly.
So why is it that many couples cannot let go and they carry on and on even though they realize it is not going well?
Gabriela Vilar: In my opinion, there are a few reasons. Sometimes it is because one gets triggered so deeply that they find it difficult not to react immediately in an attempt to make things right and to soothe their pain. In other cases, it might be that one of them cannot tolerate being mad at their partner or seeing their partner being mad at them, generally because of an underlying fear of losing them. In this scenario their partner may make the request to stop the conversation at some point, but the more they try to disconnect from it the more the other party insists in continuing with it until they can reach a solution. The other common scenario is when the couple gets into a power struggle where both want to be right and prove their partner wrong. And sometimes it is a combination of some or all of them. Unfortunately, in these situations the possibility of reaching a fair solution is very slim.
It seems they are very complex situations and it is not that easy to pinpoint objectively for people.
Gabriela Vilar: It is not easy to identify how we are contributing to a situation objectively. Our ego will try to protect us and in many cases we need a third party to show us our blind spots.
I guess that is when couples come to look for help. Right?
Gabriela Vilar: Yes, that is right. In the best scenarios that is when they come to look for help. In many cases though they decide to do it when they are “at the end of their rope.” I wish there was more awareness about the help that is available; there would probably be less unnecessary break ups out there.
Going back to what you said about timing. How long should we wait to bring a discussion back?
Gabriela Vilar: I wish I could give you a formula, but the reality is that it really depends on the personalities involved. Some people recover from disagreements very quickly and for others it may take days or more. The basic concept is to look for a time where the two parties seem open to hear and to talk.
Could you please share with us some guidelines for the readers that might be experiencing a similar situation to what you are describing?
Gabriela Vilar: Of course, these are a few things to take into consideration. First of all, identify your hot triggers and deal with them individually to avoid bringing them to the couple. For example, if you know you have a fear of abandonment or self-esteem issues find a way to work on them either alone or with help, so you don’t react, or even worst, overreact every time you get triggered. Then, learn to cope with uncertainty and “loose ends” until you know you are both ready to listen and to talk. Understand that it is wiser to discuss important issues when both of you are calm than to insist in trying to find an agreement in the middle of the heat. Also, be honest, respectful and clear; avoid indirect messages and mind reading games. And sometimes agree to disagree, if you know it is not a deal breaker and you can’t agree on it, let it go. Last, but not least, I would say recognize your limitations as a couple and ask for help before things get out of hand.
Gabriela Vilar is a bilingual English Spanish Psychotherapist primary working with individuals and couples experiencing life challenges and transitions. She holds a Master Degree in Counselling Psychology. She is also a Career Counsellor and a Certified Advanced Hypnotherapist. She serves two locations in Ontario Canada, Ajax and Richmond Hill, and she also provides e-counselling for individuals that are interested in her services but far from her offices.
You can find out more about Gabriela Vilar’s counselling services at: http://www.gtacounsellingservices.com.