The Four Cornerstones of Communication in a Relationship

Dr. Marty Tashman – Marriage Counselor

When I work with a couple at the beginning of marriage counseling or couples therapy, one of the first things we work on is communication. Because couples don’t know how to talk to each other, discussions quickly turn into arguments. This post is about the first stage of counseling, where we discuss the four cornerstones of communication.

As will become clear as these principles are described below, the first cornerstone in this list is the heart and motivation of all the other cornerstones.

  1. The real meaning of anything said is determined by the receiver, not the sender.
  2. Listen to the emotions behind your partner’s words.
  3. Notice your partner’s reactions.
  4. Understand your partner’s point of view.

As you read this, and begin to use these cornerstones, you are beginning the healing process in your relationship. I will be introducing you to four imaginary couples who are having problems, by “watching” them during our couples therapy sessions, you will be able to learn how to strengthen your communication with your partner.

1. The real meaning of anything said is determined by the receiver, not the sender.

When couples talk to each other, there are two people involved in each part of the communication, the sender of the information and the receiver of that information. The person who determines what that communication means is the receiver. This idea is essential on its own, and, as mentioned, it is a direct connection to the other three cornerstones.

Let’s look at the example of Mike and Carla. For purposes of this illustration, let’s assume that Mike was supposed to make a trip to the bank during his lunch break to make an important deposit. However, Mike gets caught up in a problem at work, doesn’t even have time for a break, and completely forgets about making the deposit that day.

Mike genuinely regrets his oversight, and is concerned about its impact on their lives when he says to Carla, that evening at home, “I didn’t have time to get to the bank today.” Carla however, is fed up with Mike not taking any responsibility for anything related to the finances, and hears Mike’s statement as a continuation of his irresponsibility.

In this case, the “receiver” (Carla) has a totally different take on what Mike has said. In Mike’s mind, he is apologizing, in Carla’s mind, Mike is just making an excuse for not doing what he said he would do.

Carla’s perception of Mike’s comment will determine the way she responds to his conversation, and conflict is likely to arise. Mike is feeling there is nothing he can say that will help the situation, because even a genuine apology is not good enough for Carla.

Mike focuses on being offended, unappreciated, misunderstood, and the situation gets even worse. Mike does not understand that though he is sincere in his apology, Carla is hearing his comment as an excuse, not an apology. Carla is interpreting the comment as a way to lessen her anger, not as a solution to her frustration. It’s important for Mike to realize that despite his honest intention to apologize, in Carla’s world, an apology without corrective action is just an excuse.

2. Listen to the emotions behind your partner’s words.

Because the meaning of any communication is what is received, and not what is sent or intended, an important and effective way to see what is actually received is by noticing your partners emotions once you have said or done something.

How people feel about something determines their responses. Being able to identify and relate to emotions is essential, because when someone is angry or hurt, everything they say is negatively tainted by those feelings.

What couples learn in couples therapy and marriage counseling is to be sensitive to their partner’s feelings.

Mary and Peter are riding in the car on a Sunday, the conversation turns to Mary’s mother and Peter says, “You know your mother controls you.” Mary responds by screaming at Peter, “You always say that and I’m sick of it.”

Now Peter is wondering why Mary responded like that. Peter thinks to himself “I’m right, and I remember when Mary wasn’t sure about what job to take, and she talked to her mother, and her mother convinced her to take a job that she didn’t like.” He goes on to think, “I can think of a whole bunch of other examples.”

What Peter missed, though, was that as the conversation turned towards Mary’s mother, Mary was starting to feel vulnerable and edgy, and this had been reflected in her words, and the emotions behind them, leading up to Peter’s comment.

A reason we want to listen to our partner’s emotions is that we can understand more about the overall context of a discussion. Mary was already responding in a way that contained clues that she was feeling vulnerable and confused about the subject.

Later on, what comes up during couples therapy is that Mary felt like Peter was putting her down. Mary said she really wished that Peter would understand that she has a hard time disagreeing with her mother, rather than criticize her for being controlled by her mother. For Peter to communicate well, he needs to understand that talking to Mary about her relationship with her mother is something that pushes an emotional button, and may trigger Mary being upset and defensive.

3. Notice your partner’s reactions.

Another way of figuring out how your partner really hears what you’ve said, is watching their reactions and behavior. When partners become defensive and withdraw or attack, it is a signal that the conversation is “going off the tracks.” These distancing emotions take over the “conversation” and folks withdraw because they figure “what’s the point, we’re only going to argue about this and not settle anything,” or they attack, because they are angry at their partner and want to get back at them and hurt them like they were hurt. Unless these behavioral signals are addressed, the communication will fall apart quickly.

During a counseling session, John and Annie (my next imaginary couple) are talking about him coming home at 2 A.M. last Tuesday. John says, “I just need to blow off some steam and then it takes me a while to get home from the city.”  Annie bursts into tears and John goes on, “I don’t do that often, just last week.” Annie says nothing but quietly sobs. John goes on, “Can you understand? I just need my time.”

I ask John if he notices what’s going on with Annie. He stops a minute and says “yes,” and then goes on, “I don’t know what to say to her.” My response is, “How about asking her why she is crying?” He does that, and Annie responds, “I feel so alone.” The conversation then took an entirely different direction, and they started to talk about spending time together. The issue for Annie turned out to be her loneliness, and for John, not knowing how to approach Annie when she is upset.

It’s not uncommon that during marriage counseling sessions couples talk and don’t look at each other. One partner may be crying and the other person continues as if the other person hasn’t had any reaction at all. If people react that way during our sessions, I can’t imagine how they respond to each other when they are not in counseling. During our couples counseling sessions, when folks become aware that their partner is having a strong response, they need to stop what they are saying, and “check in” with their partner.

The technique is very simple, when you see your partner is suddenly quiet, or gets louder, that’s a good time to ask, “What just happened?” or “Did I say something that upset you?” I want John an Annie to realize that the more they show each other they are sensitive to the other person’s responses, the more likely they are going to be able to resolve issues that come up between them.

4. Understand your partner’s point of view.

It is human nature that the more we feel understood, the more we tend to be open to understanding the other person. Being flexible in your thinking and understanding will go a long way in having your partner feel respected. By understanding your partner’s point of view, you can more easily understand how they will interpret a situation, and what you are saying about a situation. Again, you will see how the real meaning of what you are saying is being interpreted from their point of view.

It is important that when there is a difference of opinion, that the other person really understand where their partner is coming from. When there is a difference of opinion, each person is convinced that they are right and that the other person is missing the point. The natural response is to press on with additional “facts” and information – to steamroll your partner to get “what is really happening.” Contrary to our natural instinct, the more understood and accepted a person feels, the more likely they are to listen.

To give an example, let’s listen in to a  conversation with our imaginary couple Richard and Rachael. Richard wants to buy a house that is close to his work – he wants to be able to limit his commuting time. Rachel, on the other hand, wants a home with a big back yard for their children and their dog. Both are getting really frustrated with each other. Richard feels Rachel doesn’t care about him, and Rachael believes her husband is being selfish.

During our marriage counseling session, Richard says to Rachel, “I work hard all day. Don’t you understand what a hassle it is to be in the car for over an hour each way?” Rachel responds, “I’m in the house all day with our children. I would feel trapped if we didn’t have space. Do you want our children not to have a place to play as well?”

After each has said their piece, I ask them during our session to see if they can restate and understand the other person’s position. At first they are frustrated with me, and feel they are not having a chance to express themselves. As we talk a little longer, it turns out this is exactly what happens at home: each one argues their point, tempers flair and both go into separate rooms, furious with the other.

After a little more discussion during our session, Richard (with a little coaching from me) broke the ice and said, “I don’t want us to move to a home where you feel trapped, and I do want our kids to have a place to play.” Rachel, after taking a minute or so, said, “I’m glad you understand how important it is to me.” Richard responds by saying “After really thinking about it, I realize it is important to you and our kids.” Rachel’s body language relaxed and she said, “I guess we have to keep looking, because you don’t want to be exhausted when you come home, either.”

Not all issues go as well as this one between Richard and Rachael, but many do. It is interesting how powerful it is to someone when they feel you understand and care about them.

Arguments are not only about the issues, they are about being accepted and respected. To prove the point, think how often we remember that we had an argument, and that we were very upset with the other person, but we can’t as easily recall what the argument was about.

You may not agree with your partner’s point view, but it is very important for having a good discussion that the other person feels like you see that their perspective has real value. There is a big difference between understanding, and agreeing with, another person.

In this post you have met four couples. Each one illustrates one of the four cornerstones of communication. The next discussion you have with your partner, where there is a difference of opinion, rate yourself on how well you show that you understand that:

1. you understand your partner’s position about a particular issue

1 ………….2…………..3………..4………..5

(not very well)                              (perfectly)

2. you relate to your partner’s feelings about a particular issue

1 ………….2…………..3………..4………..5

(not very well)                            (perfectly)


After rating yourself, here’s how you find out the answers to these two questions: ask your partner to rate you on these two questions.

Successful couples therapy and marriage counseling is not about seeing who is right, but having the tools to communicate effectively.

Want to learn more about how to improve communication when things are falling apart, and before it’s too late? Give me a call at 888-281-5850.

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