As published on The Huffington Post, Divorce section, September 10, 2013.
We live in a very fast world.
Information is shared instantly. A public figure might do something at 9 a.m., and by 9:15 a.m. it’s all over the Twitterscape and Facebook. By 10 a.m. it is on the internet, which now functions as mainstream media.
Remember the beginning of email? Email was a major breakthrough that changed the way people communicated. Work has become more efficient. Personal exchanges are facilitated. Text messaging is even faster than email because you hear a little beep on your smart phone and, of course, you are impelled to respond. Text messaging is now a primary way people under 40 (and some older) communicate in their daily lives.
The rapidity of communication promotes “hot” speech. “Hot” speech is angry and ill-considered. It is made without much forethought when in an excited or emotional state.
For instance, you get an email containing statements, some of which you disagree with. You respond immediately. Since you can’t help but check your emails every three minutes (time yourself), you notice the response to your response, to which you respond. This causes a flurry of emails with a great deal of reaction but not a lot of reflection or forethought.
But the very “hottest” speech and the most uncontrollable is when you are actually speaking with other people face to face. This “live time” talk goes on without the pauses for thinking and composing your thoughts that can occur when you write an email or a text message.
Hot speech between spouses can be very damaging to a marriage. When you’re with your spouse, you don’t have to act as civilized as you do in social situations with friends or at the workplace. With your spouse, the boundaries are lowered. In marriage, sometimes, people act at their worst – because they can with that one person. Spouses tend to let everything hang out. That causes a lot of problems and can even lead to divorce.
In my work as a marital mediator, I’ve worked with couples whose communication is at a low point. Everything out of a spouse’s mouth seems (and actually might be) negative. There is anger and frustration in every verbal interchange. Contempt is rampant. The reactivity gets worse and worse. The couple can’t seem to break the pattern of negative interaction. It is clear that these people are headed for divorce. No one can live that way!
In situations like this, I use a special technique. I call it the “writing-notes-in-longhand” technique. It is very effective in breaking through negative communication patterns.
Here’s what I do.
I ask the couple to do the following as homework for an entire week: Make sure all communication during the next week is by handwritten notes. And I mean all communications. Even the mundane ones, like “Can you walk the dog now?” And I mean handwritten – not email, and not text messaging.
This does several things:
1. It slows down the “hot” speech. Now you have to sit down and handwrite a note when you want to say something. You really have to think when you write. Writing in longhand slows you down. Your spouse (or partner) has to do the same. It’s like taking an adult “timeout” before reacting. It builds in time to consider the other’s point of view and how you want to express yourself in the most effective (perhaps even kind) way.
2. The slowdown changes the entire tone of the interactions. Writing communication in longhand promotes accurate and precise formulation of issues. It helps you collect your thoughts and contemplate what you want to say. Anger dissipates quickly. Emotions calm down. Furthermore, reading what your partner writes gives you a chance to absorb what the other has said without your limbic brain (emotions) getting in the way.
3. By slowing down the verbal interchange, you can focus on your concerns and needs in what you write. This is consistent with a mediation technique which is to focus on a party’s “interests” rather than “positions”. When you hold to “positions”, it leads to non-thought and anger, and leads to stalemate. Identifying and expressing your “interests” rather than your “positions”, you and your partner can enter an area of understanding and mutual accommodation.
4. When slowed down, a couple starts to see the fallacy in their anger. Often the anger is caused by miscommunication, misunderstanding, or a lack of compassion. Slowing down helps you see the other person’s point of view and promotes sympathy and respect.
5. Remember that anger is an emotion. Nine times out of ten, anger is an illogical or overblown emotion to the situation you are reacting to. Anger is destructive. Writing communications promotes logic and generally stops anger it in its tracks. Then you can start really dealing with the issues at hand.
6. Anger is not a good thing. Some of the modern psychological literature says that anger is a healthy response and you should not suppress it. I disagree with this conclusion. I think anger builds anger, both in the person expressing it and the person receiving it. It’s not a good way to solve problems. By taking a timeout, you can become calm. You are no longer in “real” time. Emotions abate. When you write, you will probably express your frustration in a more rational and less confrontational way. It’s good to be pacifistic in your communications – especially with your spouse.
So give the “writing-notes-in-longhand” technique a try. It promotes a calm and placid atmosphere where people can feel heard and accepted. It’s a place where people can be thoughtful instead of reactive. It helps you lead by your mind instead of being led by your emotions. It’s a manifestation of patience. And patience can lead to many good things, including regaining a loving space with your spouse or partner.
For The Huffington Post version, click here.
© Laurie Israel 2013.