In the next few months, we will be presenting ideas, opinions and guidelines on working with couples with specific emphasis on communication in the marriage/relationship and how we manage conflict in our marriage or relationship. The information provided is gathered from literature as well as experiences in working with couples.

The aspects covered include the following:

  1. Communication
  2. Communicating constructively – a guideline
  3. Managing conflict – blaming and criticism
  4. Managing conflict – defensiveness and pursuing/avoiding issues
  5. Managing conflict – stonewalling and contempt
  6. Moving forward – repairing the conflict

A lasting marriage results from a couple’s ability and/or willingness to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship.”


In communication between two people, we need a “sender” and a “receiver”. For example, the sender conveys a message to the receiver (verbal or non-verbal message), who in turn responds verbally (talking) or non-verbally (action) to the sender. The purpose of communication is to transmit information (message or unit/s of information), inquire about information, correct information, etc., to obtain a better understanding.(

In a constructive relationship, couples are mostly able to talk freely, openly, and feel safe sharing their most private thoughts. They comfortably and considerately verbalize their concerns and feelings when difficulties arise and voice their positive thoughts when things are good.

There are always three implied factors in communication:

  • ‘We cannot, not communicate’. Believe it or not, not communicating is also a form of communicating. The moment two people enter and share a space, communication begins. Even when silent, we are communicating.
  • ‘Our relationship with others determines how we communicate’. The way we communicate with our partner differs from communicating with friends and this again differs from how we communicate with acquaintances or strangers.
  • ‘Communication is calculated – even when impulsive’. The nature of a relationship depends on how we interpret our own and the other’s intentions and actions during communication. The way we interpret others’ behaviour affects our reactions, leading to cyclical cause-and-effect cycles. Breaking these cycles requires open dialogue about how we talk, and to clarify feelings and intentions.

When we enter a relationship or marriage, we bring into it our childhood experiences and the behaviours modelled by our parents. This forms our perception of self and others and influences the way in which we communicate and “connect” with others.

Irrespective of how we grow up as children there are behaviour styles (preferences) or roles we take into adulthood. These roles can be grouped into four categories namely the “responsible child, adjuster, rescuer and acting out child”. (Claudia Black). These roles largely define the way in which we behave and communicate.

  • The responsible child functions on the premise of “If I don’t do it no-one will” or “If I don’t do this, things will go wrong, or things will get worse.” They are generally well organized, have strong leadership skills, are goal orientated and self-disciplined and are comfortable taking initiative and making decisions. They have difficulty following or listening to others as they want to be in control. Their fear of making mistakes feeds the notion of always having to be right.

Responsible children as adults are generally tense, overthink matters, anxious and feel abandoned emotionally. “I have to” instead of “want to …”

  • The adjuster operates from a standpoint of “If I don’t get emotionally involved, I won’t get hurt” or “I can’t make a difference anyway”. Adjusters generally have an easygoing attitude and are flexible. They do, however, struggle to take the initiative and make decisions and have difficulty being assertive.

Adjusters as adults have difficulty trusting others and are fearful of attaching to avoid disappointments. “I am lonely.”

  • The rescuers’ behaviour is based on the premise that “If I am nice people will like me” and “If I take care of you, you will not leave me or reject me”. They are caring, considerate, warm and empathetic people.Are often oversensitive to criticism, easily feels guilty and have a strong fear of anger. They are self-critical yet have high tolerance for inappropriate behaviour is others.

As adult person the “rescuer” attracts people with problems and becomes involved in the pain of others. “I miss me.”

  • The acting out child finds himself or herself struggling with anger. Their behaviour is based on the premise that “If I scream enough someone will notice me” and “Take what you want, nobody is going to give it to you anyway.” They are close to own feelings, honest, creative and have a sense of humor. They have difficulty appropriately expressing their anger, insensitive to others and exposed to social problems at young age – truancy, drug use, teenage pregnancy, school drop-out, etc.

As adults they have great difficulty feeling good about themselves. Have difficulty meeting own needs or expressing them constructively. “I am afraid”.


In almost all sessions of couple counselling, communication and related issues are highlighted as the reason for seeking help. Yet, when couples engaged in couples counselling are asked about their communication, almost all of them rate themselves above average, generally seven or more out of ten. They are especially inclined to perceive themselves to be good listeners.

Exploring this ambiguity, the bottom-line reflects that one or both partners feel that they are not being “heard” – they do not feel acknowledged, valued, or understood by the partner.


When couples struggle to engage in communicating meaningfully and often feel left with issues hanging in the air and not being resolved, they may seek out a counsellor for additional assistance. In counselling there initially is the unspoken attitude of wanting to be right and that the other person must “change”. A counsellor may find that he or she is expected to be the judge in their encounters but should always act as an objective third party who can witness and mediate the negative cycles of interaction that couples can get stuck in. Sometimes, especially in the early stages of therapy, couples find that once they leave the therapy room and return home, it is easy to fall back into familiar patterns of criticism, defensiveness, blame, or withdrawal. It can be helpful to alert the couple to this and have access to resources that provide a sense of structure and support while working towards more successful communication.

This information aims to provide context about factors involved in communication. The next contribution will focus on how we can communicate more effectively.

Author: Peter Schultz