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Section 4
Invalidation that Undermines Communication

Question 4 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, we discussed a research study into factors that influence the development of a working therapeutic alliance during conjoint therapy for couples dealing with marital conflict.

In this section, we will discuss four specific patterns by which couples commonly undermine communication. These four patterns are escalation, invalidation, negative interpretations, and withdrawal and avoidance.

As you know, there are several patterns that even the most seemingly perfect couples may exhibit that can be signs of potential danger ahead for the couple’s well-being. These may increase the chance that one spouse will seek emotional fulfillment through emotional or physical infidelity. These danger signs may be a good place to begin when choosing communication strategies that work to introduce to the couple.

Couples Communication that leads to Marital Conflict

♦ 1. Escalation
I have found four patterns that I see most commonly as early warning symptoms. The first of these danger signs is escalation. In escalation, partners respond back and forth negatively to each other, continually increasing the negativity so that conditions in the relationship become worse and worse. As you have seen, these negative comments can form a widening spiral of anger and frustration. Would you agree that it is not merely the emotional intensity that makes escalation a key warning sign, but the tendency to move from simple anger to hurtful statements?

Alice, who had been married to her husband Dan for 5 years, began seeing me after she and Dan began having verbal fights. Alice stated, "The fights always start over such small things, like Dan forgetting to put the cap back on the toothpaste. He’d snap back at me with, ‘Oh, like you never do the same thing.’ So I’d get mad, tell him of course I don’t… which is true… next thing I know, he’s telling me how compulsive I am and we’re yelling at each other."

As you can see, Alice and Dan had begun to make hurtful negative comments, often using intimate knowledge of each other as weapons. Alice stated, "I feel bad… I can say the meanest things to Dan during our fights. It’s not what I really feel though! But at the same time, some of the things he says to me… it seems like that’s what he really thinks of me." As you have probably observed, even subtle escalation can lock couples into a pattern of negativity, and the comments made in the heat of the moment can cause significant damage over time.

♦ Marital Conflict Strategy: "Step it Back"
For couples like Alice and Dan, I usually recommend practicing the "Step it Back" communication technique. This technique involves encouraging clients to notice when they are beginning to feel defensive, and to respond by "stepping back" their responses. I role-played a simple interaction with Alice in our session, playing the part of her husband.

For example, Alice stated "You left the butter out again!" in an irritated tone. I responded, "Why are these little things so important to you?" I encouraged Alice to respond to this escalation by softening her tone and stating, "Things like that are important to me. Is that so bad?" Clearly, this gives Dan a chance to soften his tone as well, and opens room for a discussion.

♦ 2. Invalidation
The second common warning sign I see is invalidation, which is a pattern in which one partner either directly or subtly or overtly puts down the thoughts, feelings, or character of the other. In one of our early sessions, Alice stated, "The other day I came home frustrated because my boss gave me some rough feedback on my work, and I told Dan. He said it didn’t sound that bad, that there was a lot of positive there. But it still hurt, and I was still upset! He didn’t get it! And then he goes and tells me I’m overreacting!"

Alice felt hurt because she felt that Dan was telling her that her feelings were inappropriate, thus putting a barrier between them.  Do you find that in subtle cases of invalidation like this, partners like Dan feel like they are being constructive, or trying to cheer their spouse up by telling them it isn’t so bad? Of course, despite the good intentions, I find that this invalidation leads to the hurt partner beginning to cover up their thoughts and feelings, widening the gap in the relationship.

♦ 3. Negative Interpretations
I’ve found that negative interpretations are a third sign of danger ahead. These occur when one partner consistently believes that the motives of the other are more negative than they actually are. As you have probably observed, this makes any conflict or disagreement hard for the couple to deal with in a constructive way. I find that negative interpretations are particularly hard to detect and counteract, because most human beings have a tendency towards confirmation bias, the tendency to look for evidence that confirms what we already believe about others or situations.

For example, my clients Steven and Shelley had been married for ten years. Steven would frequently become angry when Shelley forgot to put the car in the garage when she returned home, and state, "You always forget to put the car away. I know you do this just to annoy me. You don’t care about anything important to me." No matter how many times Shelley remembered to put the car in the garage, Steven continued to interpret the times she forgot as a disregard for his feelings.

Have you treated a client like Steven whose negative interpretation of his or her spouse’s behavior is so ingrained that no amount of evidence will convince them otherwise? Have you found that these clients sometimes feel justified in taking "revenge" on their partner for these imagined slights? Shelley found that she felt justified in having an affair with a friend at work because of Steven’s behavior. Shelley stated, "Well, it serves him right. After all Steven has put me through, why shouldn’t I do something to get back at him?"

♦ 4. Withdrawal and Avoidance
In addition to escalation, invalidation, and negative interpretations, I find a fourth way couples undermine their relationships is withdrawal and avoidance. Clearly, avoidance occurs when one partner displays a reluctance to discuss important issues, while withdrawal involves "turning off" or "shutting down" during similar important discussions. One partner becomes the pursuer, constantly seeking to discuss the important issues of the relationship, while the other withdraws and avoids. The more one partner avoids and withdraws, the more forceful the pursuer becomes, and the cycle escalates.

Even low levels of this pattern can be devastating, and in my practice, I have observed that they are among the strongest predictors of future relationship troubles. One simple technique I suggest as a beginning step in arresting the avoider/pursuer cycle is the gentle start-up. As we have discussed, the more avoidance and withdrawal occurs, the harder the pursuer pushes. With the gentle start-up, I remind the pursuer that the way they start a discussion can impact their partner’s avoidance behavior. I encourage the pursuer to practice positive, caring entry statements to bring up the issues that need to be discussed.

In this section, we have discussed four communication danger signs. These four danger signs are escalation, invalidation, negative interpretations, and withdrawal and avoidance.

In this section, we have discussed four communication danger signs. These four danger signs are escalation, invalidation, negative interpretations, and withdrawal and avoidance.

- Corliss, R., Steptoe, S., & Bower, A. (Fall 2001/Jan 2004) The Marriage Savers. Time,163(3).

- Patricia, P., Boyle, R. A., & Tejada, L. (Sep 2008) I Said, You Said: A Communication Exercise for Couples. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 30(3), 167-173.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Bodenmann, G., Hilpert, P., Nussbeck, F. W., & Bradbury, T. N. (2014). Enhancement of couples’ communication and dyadic coping by a self-directed approach: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 82(4), 580–591.

Cundiff, J. M., Smith, T. W., & Frandsen, C. A. (2012). Incremental validity of spouse ratings versus self-reports of personality as predictors of marital quality and behavior during marital conflict. Psychological Assessment, 24(3), 676–684.

Korobov, N. (2020). A discursive psychological approach to deflection in romantic couples’ everyday arguments. Qualitative Psychology.

Li, P., & Johnson, L. N. (2018). Couples' depression and relationship satisfaction: Examining the moderating effects of demand/withdraw Communication Patterns. Journal of Family Therapy, Supplement40, 63-85.

Miller, K., & Kelly, A. (2020). Is self-compassion contagious? An examination of whether hearing a display of self-compassion impacts self-compassion in the listener. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 52(2), 159–170.

Tan, K., Jarnecke, A. M., & South, S. C. (Jun 2017). Impulsivity, Communication, and Marital Satisfaction in Newlywed Couples. Personal Relationships24(2), 423-439.

What are examples of couples communication that can result in marital conflict? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 5
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