“I didn’t Call You A Slob!”: Couples Counseling Tips

Being a fairly rambunctious boy in Junior High, I got into trouble one day during lunch and was ordered by a teacher to sit down for the remainder of the lunch period.  In frustration, I said, “That sucks!”  The teacher, having thought she heard a different word, proceeded to take me to the principal’s office.  I recall being very upset because I was getting into trouble for something she misinterpreted. In my couples counseling practice in Newport Beach, I often observe communication misinterpretations.

“I would really appreciate it if you would pick up your own cloths,” says a wife respectfully enough to her husband during a couples counseling session. “You’re the one thats a slob!” he hostilely responds.  “I didn’t call you a slob,” she says back.  Upset, she turns to me and says, “See! I can’t say anything without him taking it wrong”.  Jumping in, he says, “I’m sick and tired of her criticism.  I’m not a child needing a mother telling me all the things I am doing wrong!”   Both look at me… and in their eyes, they are saying the same thing, “…See what I have to deal with?”

When counseling couples at my Newport Beach office, one of the things I do is share research on communication.  Surprisingly, as little as 7% of communication is expressed through the actual “words” we speak.  A majority of communication is expressed through “voice tone”(38%) and “body language”(55%).  This means that there is a lot of interpreting going on beyond the actual words.  What a person hears may be very different than what the other person is trying to say.  This is especially true when the message is processed through a negative filter.

During couples counseling, I explain that we all have filters that we run messages through. These filters function to help people quickly understand the message behind the message. Filters are formed through repetitive and powerful emotional communications with the people we are closest to.  They tend to be formed when people are young because this is when the brain is developing and becoming organized.  If repetitive and powerful emotional communications are “positive” regarding a person’s value, a positive filter will be molded for the purpose of capturing positive messages.  When individuals with a positive filter receives praise or affirmation they may say, “Thank you!” in a tone that conveys an appreciation that their positive qualities have been noticed.   Those with positive filters primarily anticipate positive feedback.  When they do receive negative feedback, they tend not to let the negative “take the day”.

The opposite is true regarding negative filters. Individuals who experience repetitive and powerful negative emotional communications, develops negative filters.  Negative filters are built on a negative framework.  As such, they effectively capture negative messages and will even sift through positive messages looking for the negative.  A wife with a negative filter, whose husband says, “You look great in that dress!” may reply by saying, “I know you don’t like the way I dress most of the time!”  Her negative filter sifted out the positive.  This is what negative filters are built to do – find the negative.

There is a very powerful scene in the movie classic, “Good Will Hunting” that illustrates the impact of a negative filter.  The scene is one in which the main character and his girlfriend get into a heated discussion during which she, in a very compelling way, communicates that she loves him.  However, … he is not able to hear it.  The abuse he experienced as a child left him with a negative filter.  His filter could not capture messages of love, only messages of hurt and rejection.  The more negative and hostile a person’s experiences are during the time when filters are developing, the more powerful the negative filters tend to be.  In the same way, the more positive a person’s experiences are as filters are forming, the more positive their filters tend to be.

Couples counseling can be an extremely difficult process when one or both individuals in the relationship have very negative filters.  Almost anything that is said can end up being filtered as negative. While we all have filters that misinterpret messages at times, those with negative filters misinterpret messages more often.  Day to day life is often painful for these people.  Each day can be one in which they are trying to manage and survive what they experience as negative and rejecting communications from others.  When their spouse looks at them, it becomes a “criticism” about how they look and when their spouse does not look at them, it is interpreted as a “rejection”.  A request for help can make them feel “used” but not being asked for help can be a “slight”.  And allowing people to help or support them can make them feel “less than”, but when people are not supportive and caring they still feel “less than”, just in a different way.  People with negative filters are at the mercy of their filters, as are those who are in relationship with them.

The goal most couples have when they come for counseling at my office in Newport Beach is to again feel loved and valued by the other.  A couple may begin by talking about conflict, poor communication or lack of intimacy during the couples counseling session.  Yet, these are often ways to talk about how they don’t feel loved or valued.  When experiences are repeatedly negative in a relationship, existing negative filters will become more powerful.  What a couple needs in this situation are regular experiences of being loved and valued.  Couples counseling helps couples to move from a negative cycle to a positive cycle.   Counseling provides a safe environment for couples to work toward generating experiences that produce the experience of being loved and valued.  For each person in the relationship, this looks different.  What is important is that each person increasingly feels more loved. When positive experiences increase (feelings of love), positive thoughts about the other tend to also increase.  As positive feelings and positive thoughts are regularly generated, negative filters become less powerful. Positive filters become stronger.

It is difficult to be on the other end of an individual’s negative filter.  As a Junior Higher, I felt judged and misunderstood.  The teacher inevitably did not believe me when I said I did not use a swear word.  When I went home, I told my parents what happened. I was relieved that they believed me.  While they knew I could at times by a difficult child, they knew I was not a bad child.

When important people in your life have positive filters and think the best of you, it feels safe.  The couples I provide couples counseling to in my Newport Beach office show visible signs of relief when the other person’s filter shifts from “negative” to “positive”.  When filters become positive conversations turn positive.  The request, “Could you please pick-up your cloths” is no longer filtered as an attack but rather a message about what the other personally values. Because the person no longer feels attacked it is easier to respond positively, “Sure, thanks for reminding me! I know it is important to you and I want to do a better job”.  Isn’t this the response we all wish for from the person we are in a loving relationship with? When positive filters are strengthened, couples I provide counseling to in my Newport Beach office are able to safely talk about most anything.  Trusting and feeling secure is the hallmark of all healthy relationships.  ENJOY!