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Couples Communications and Filters that Affect Perceptions
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In the last section, we discussed four communication danger signs. These four danger signs are escalation, invalidation, negative interpretations, and withdrawal and avoidance.
In this section, we will discuss filters as they relate to teaching communication strategies that work. We will also discuss how filters impair communication in relationships. The five filters we will discuss are distractions, emotional states, beliefs and expectations, differences in style, and self-protection.
I am sure you have experienced, as I have, treating couples who are continually having fights because what one partner says is not what the other hears. For my clients, Janis and Fred, married for 5 years, miscommunication was the cause of almost all of their fights. In a recent session, Fred stated, "Last Friday I got home before Janis, and I was real beat. I figured she would be too, and it would be nice for us to go out to eat and just relax together. So right when she comes home, I ask her what she wants to do for dinner, and next things I know she’s asking me why it’s always her job to make dinner, and getting mad at me! Jeez, all I wanted was to give her a nice dinner out."
Clearly, when Fred asked Janis what she wanted to do for dinner, Janis heard "What are you going to make me for dinner?" I considered this negative communication style a good place to start in helping Janis and Fred change the patterns in their marriage.
I explained to Fred and Janis that this type of miscommunication occurs when partners each have filters. I stated, "When light goes through the filter on a camera lens, it gets changed. When people have filters, what someone has said to them gets changed in a similar way." I explain to clients like Fred and Janis that all of us have many different kinds of filters; They can be based on what we are feeling, our life experiences, our cultural backgrounds, and so on. In spousal relationships, I have found there are five most commonly occurring filters that interrupt communication.
Filtering that affects Perceptions
The first of these filters are distractions. As you know, these distractions can be either external, such as noisy kids or a bad phone line, or internal, such as feeling tired or trying to remember who you forgot to call back. I tell my clients that one of the best ways to avoid distraction filters is to find a quiet place for important discussions, away from TVs and telephones. I also remind my clients to try not to assume their spouse is ready to talk because they are. I told Fred, "One of the best ways you can make sure Janis isn’t hearing you through a distraction filter is just to ask. When you want to talk, try asking if she has a while to talk, or if she is in the middle of something."
Emotional States Filter
The second listening filter I have found is emotional states. As you are aware, several studies have shown that people are much more likely to give others the benefit of the doubt when they are in a good mood, and far less likely to do so when in a bad mood. I explained to Fred, "If Janis is in a bad mood, she’s likely to hear what you’re saying to her in a negative way, no matter how nicely you say it."
Beliefs and Expectations Filter
In addition to distractions and emotional states, the third communication filter I observe in my clients is beliefs and expectations. My clients David and Mya each complained that the other never wanted to go out and do anything on the weekends. David, believing Mya would want to stay in, would ask "We have some free time tonight. Maybe we should think about doing something?" Mya, hearing David’s tentativeness, would then assume that David didn’t really want to go out, and respond, "Hmm, maybe we should just stay in. I think there’s a movie we both wanted to see on TV." As you can see, David and Mya’s beliefs about their spouse’s preferences impeded their communication, and both partners ended up frustrated.
Differences in Style Filter
The fourth common filter I observe is differences in style. Do you agree that even in couples who have been married for many years, difference in communication styles can lead to difficult filtering problems? Clearly, if one partner comes from an emotionally expressive family, and the other from a more emotionally reserved background, difficulties can arise. Fred, for example, came from a reserved background. Janis’ family was large and boisterous. Janis stated, "When Fred tells me, for example, our electric bill came to $400, I’ll probably yell about it. It’s how I’ve always been. But he starts accusing me of yelling at him! That’s not it at all!"
In addition to distractions, emotional states, beliefs and expectations, and differences in style, the final major communication filter I observe is self-protection. As you know, this is directly related to the fear of rejection. Instead of saying "There’s a movie playing I want to see, want to go?" Janis might say, "What do you think of that movie that just came out?" Fred, also fearing rejection, might be afraid to say he’s very interested. Thus, Fred might just say "Well, it looks ok…," minimizing his feelings. Since both Fred and Janis believe their partner is uninterested in the movie, they stay home.
Of course, then both Fred and Janis end up upset. You have probably observed how damaging this filter can be with issues more important than choosing to go see a movie.
One technique I suggested for Fred and Janis to practice is the "Filter Alert." I have found the "Filter Alert" technique to be a useful communication strategy for couples. I stated to Fred and Janis, "The best way to get around filters is realizing you have one and announcing it. For example, Fred, if you’ve had a bad day at the office and are in a bad mood, try telling Janis about it. Explain what put you in a bad mood, and say something like ‘so if I seem snappy tonight, it’s not you at all. I’m just on edge because my boss yelled at me.’ By warning each other ahead of time, it is sometimes easier to deal with a negative response."
In this section, we have discussed filters, as they relate to teaching communication strategies. We also discussed how filters impair communication in relationships. The five filters we discussed are distractions, emotional states, beliefs and expectations, differences in style, and self-protection.
In the next section, we will discuss the Speaker-Listener technique for structuring discussions between couples on sensitive issues.
- Carter, B., MSW, & Peters, J. K. (1996) Love, Honor, and Negotiate: Making Your Marriage Work. New York, NY: Pocket Books.
- Perissutti, C., & Barraca, J. (Mar 2013) Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy vs. Traditional Behavioral Couple Therapy: A Theoretical Review of the Differential Effectiveness. Clinica y Salud, 24(1), 11-18.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Li, P., & Johnson, L. N. (2018). Couples' depression and relationship satisfaction: Examining the moderating effects of demand/withdraw Communication Patterns. Journal of Family Therapy, Supplement, 40, 63-85.
Riekkola, J., Rutberg, S., Lilja, M., & Isaksson, G. (2019). Strategies of older couples to sustain togetherness. Journal of Aging Studies, 48, 60–66.
Robison, M. K., Miller, A. L., & Unsworth, N. (2018). Individual differences in working memory capacity and filtering. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 44(7), 1038–1053.
Wendt, M., Luna-Rodriguez, A., & Jacobsen, T. (2012). Conflict-induced perceptual filtering. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 38(3), 675–686.
What are filters that affect perceptions in couples communication?
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