Monday, December 17, 2018

Compatibility & Marital Communication: Rather Overrated by Dr. Alan Singer


Compatibility is the simpler of the two topics so let's start with that. Compatibility is not something you have, it is something you make. It is about how you speak to each other, how well you get along, and how you move through time together. Rarely do couples call me for a counseling appointment and mention compatibility even though large-scale studies have found “incompatibility” to be one of the top five reasons given for divorce. It is overrated because unity is more important. Unity does not mean that you are the same, it means that you are together. Rabbi Ralph Pelcovitz explained, "It's not important that spouses think alike, it's important that they think together."

Communication is quite a different matter. In my practice, at least 90% of couples mention communication difficulties within the first five minutes of describing why they want to begin marriage therapy. Recently, one husband started by saying, “Here it is Dr. Singer, my wife and I need to improve our communication, big time!" In this essay, I will begin by describing relevant research, after which I will give you three examples of couples who start by mentioning communication even though there were clearly much more pressing issues. I will conclude with a wonderful poem written by a close friend about marital communication.

During the 1998 plenary session of the SmartMarriages conference, psychologist and researcher Dr. John Mordechai Gottman described unclear communication as such: “A myth promulgated by the general systems theorists of the 1960s was that marital conflict is due to unclear communication. Many of the theorists, such as Jackson, Satir and Bateson, worked with schizophrenia and manic depression. In those couples, communication is very confused. When communication is clarified, you then have a healthy, well-functioning relationship. With married couples, when you clear up the communication, the hatred is very clear. One major hypothesis of people who come to therapy is, I have this defective partner, and I would like him/her to be fixed. Theorists think that if you clear up the communication, the problems will go away—Not True.”

Gottman considers it to be a common myth of relationships that you can save your marriage just by learning to communicate more sensitively. Gottman continues: “The building blocks of healthy marriages include love, respect, commitment, a desire to connect, shared laughter and devotion to each other. Learning communications skills can help couples develop these qualities, but it cannot create these qualities by itself. Even people who despise each other can communicate well with one another.”

There are several genuine communication issues that I have observed in couples whom I have counseled: an auditory hearing deficit, a language barrier (i.e. a cross-cultural marriage), and ADHD (with its symptoms of inattention i.e. appearing to not be listening even when spoken to directly).

You Be the Judge
In the three case studies below, do you think that poor communication skills are the key to the difficulties in each couple’s relationship, or is there some other factor at work?

1. Steven calls his wife “Amy” during heated arguments even though her name is Cheryl. Why? ‎ Because Cheryl's mother’s name is Amy and this is Steven's way of insulting them both in one swipe; he infers that like mother, like daughter. Particularly offensive is that Steven usually is yelling during these arguments and that all of this frequently plays out in front of the couple’s children. Cheryl called me for an appointment and described their communication issues. This is “contempt”- the most harmful form of marital behavior according to Gottman's research. ‎Watching couples who demonstrate “contempt” is the key to Gottman predicting divorce, with 94% accuracy, after thirty minutes of observing a couple. “Contempt is when you communicate that you are superior morally or in any other way to your partner. If you count the number of times in our laboratory video that a husband has displayed a contemptuous facial expression, it is a good predictor of how many infectious illnesses his wife will have in the next four years. It is immuno-suppressive to be in a contemptuous marriage.”

2. Susanne called me and described in great detail her communication issues with her husband. These issues were pushing them to the brink of divorce. She stated, "Brad asks my opinion but really doesn't want it. When I do speak, he acts controlling and declares 'lower your voice'. As soon as he hushes me, I flip out and shut down. Is there any hope for a couple like us, Dr. Singer? ‎Would you agree that there's a lot more going on here than communication issues? First, I told Susanne that yes, there is hope, because more than any other aspect of my role as a therapist is - first and foremost - to be a hope monger. The days of neutrality regarding the marital commitment are over. For the last five years, I have been listed on the National Registry of Marriage-Friendly Therapists. Second, I told Susanne, that more than any other descriptor, a marriage must be safe. Dr. Scott Stanley of the University of Denver outlines the four crucial marital safeties: physical, emotional, commitment, and community. If Brad is controlling Susanne, that may be an indicator of emotional abuse. When he demands that she lower her voice, he is acting superior, therefore the destructive element of “contempt” is at work here too. They lack civility and respect for each other.

Dr. Yitzchak Schechter, of the Institute for Applied Research and Community Collaboration, recently published some of his divorce data for the Orthodox Jewish community in Jewish Action magazine. His research rank-ordered factors that lead to divorce as follows: 1. Verbal/emotional abuse. 2. Feeling put down/demeaned

3. Problems communicating. From my perspective in this essay, I would classify the first and second as “contemptuous” behavior, which sounds the death knell for many marriages, much more so than communication problems.   

3. Jessica called me describing her communication problems. Her husband Barry is the consummate volunteer. He's on the community chevra kadisha and he oversees a ‎big-brother program at their shul. He buys groceries every week for a homeless shelter. Jessica pleaded, "When he buys supplies for the shelter, would it kill him to call and ask me if I need anything? Why can't he help me more around the house with various chores and scale back his volunteer work? It burns me up how he takes me and the house chores for granted. Almost daily, he comes home and we eat a quick dinner together. Then he falls asleep on the couch watching TV, sometimes for the whole night.  If I get thirty minutes a day with him, that’s not a marriage!" What needs improvement in this marriage is not communication, but a drastic increase in the three A's: appreciation, admiration, and affection, and to run the house as partners with all chores equitably divided. It typifies what many couples struggle with: the time famine. 

Communication, Creativity, and Catharsis
Communicating one's thoughts in poetry, song, or art is a wonderful talent and excellent method of coping and self-soothing. ‎My close friend and colleague Mr. Harry Glazer, shared his poem about communication with me back in the nineties, following his divorce. I admire Harry’s eloquent description of marital foundation-stones including: time together, safety, trust, hope, humor and dreams. As his marriage ended, so did the communication between him and his wife. Here is Harry Glazer's "Without Words" (printed with his permission): 

The downpour of bitterness can't wash away the memories of moments, hours, days of shared happiness. The sound of your laughter lit the distance between us.
Everyday commentary we bartered, offered us both useful insight. 
Movies, dinners, family times we enjoyed and remembered together.
Me saying I'd love you forever, you saying you'd love me forever and a day.
Yet recall is double edged ‎and reflections of fights also persist. Hours when we both probably felt brick walls would offer better answers. Days when a smile or a friendly joke seemed so remote, nearly forgotten. We'd each say painful words to touch a nerve, push a button. 
But I was always so certain the goalpost was that forever. I always trusted you so deeply to say when it hurt too much. To cry when the cost was too high before it overcame us both. The cold spell came, I didn't see much warning. You couldn't say why or what, feeling a frigid wind bite. I yelled and begged for a sign, you just pulled farther away. 
I wish I'd have known earlier, of the sinking feeling that held you. ‎Instead of hearing it first that night when you poured out, with calm resolve your sorted collection of discontent. I guess you'd felt trapped without voice to yell for help. Maybe you thought I didn't care, or would have held on too tight. Still, you should have told me and not bottled it inside. While you smiled to the town, laughed with friends and family, talked about plans and the future, held me close, and spoke tenderly. 

You left so many questions, so many mysteries to be unsolved. With painful feelings of desertion and difficult notions of deceit. Still, I miss you sometimes. Still, I wonder how you are. You've moved on and so will I. Yet it seems so tragic to see the circle of our intimacy close, leaving us without words.

End Note
My maternal grandfather, Yitzchak Shaul Halevi Horwitz z'l, became proficient in Esperanto. A constructed language fashioned by a Jewish Ophthalmologist ‎Dr. L. Zamenoff in 1887, the word Esperanto literally means "one who hopes." My Uncle Chaim z'l enlightened me, "The hope was to achieve world peace with better communication by using one common language. It was a beautiful goal but it never caught on." 

Rav Shmuel Bornstein‎, the Rebbe of Sochaczev, in his brilliant and inspiring commentary the Shem MiShmuel, commented on the laws pertaining to vows found in Parshas Mattos. "A vow can create something quite remarkable," states the Shem MiShmuel, "for it can imbue an ordinary object with sanctity or with prohibition. The power of speech is sufficient to alter the nature of an object changing it entirely from something ordinary into a mitzvah item. We have the ability to sanctify the world with our speech." He concludes, "The Torah here enjoins us not to misuse this power by speaking nonsense or uttering vows that we will later profane."

One take-home message from this essay should be not to invest all of your time and energy in working on what you should say. Be more careful about what you should never say to your spouse such as demeaning comments or sarcastic remarks. It is inspiring that Pirkei Avos states, Emor m'at v’aseh harbeh--Shammai asserted, “Say little and do much" (Mishna 1:15).

Dr. Alan Singer has been a marriage therapist in NJ and NYC since 1980. He has an 80% success rate in saving the marriages of couples on the brink. He counsels via Skype, blogs at, and authored Creating Your Perfect Family Size (Wiley). His mantra: I am the last person in the room to give up on your marriage. Married for 41 years, he and his wife are the parents of four grown children. He serves on the National Council of Young Israel speaker’s bureau and the National Registry of Marriage-Friendly Therapists.    (732) 572-2707