Laura Gilliom, Ph.D.
One of the most common problems reported by couples who come to therapy is "poor communication." By this they usually mean they either don't talk about difficult issues, or when they do, they get into fights. That in turn often leads to more avoidance of discussing difficult issues.
There are lots of ways of working on couple communication, including looking at deeper underlying factors. But one simple tool I often recommend to couples is a regular "couple meeting" where they can check in with each other and address any issues that may be bothering them. For couples who are not addressing problems effectively (or at all, in some cases) it provides structure and safety for bringing things up. The idea of a "meeting" can be less threatening than a "discussion" for some people, especially if there is a tendency toward conflict avoidance for one or both partners.
Couple meetings can also be a time for connecting at a deeper level on what's going on in each person's life. It is easy to become distant from each other when you don't make an effort to stay connected. Relationships need nurturing, and I often tell people that when it's most difficult to make time is when you need it the most. Of course, there are lots of ways to spend time together and connect besides a "meeting," but they can be one way that connection happens.
If you decide to try couple meetings, here are some basic guidelines to follow.
1. Agree on a time and place ahead of time. I usually recommend weekly couple meetings, but for some couples it works to simply call a meeting when one person has something to discuss. Ideally, it should be sometime when both partners are rested and won't be interrupted. Turn off phones, TVs, etc. Make sure children are occupied and know not to interrupt. If it's feasible, you may want to make it an outing for coffee/tea (not alcohol) or a meal.
2. Set a time limit. The amount of time can vary, but sticking to the agreed-upon limit is important. One big reason that some partners avoid communicating about problems is that they fear it will turn into a long, drawn out argument. If you have a time limit and stick to it you won't have that problem. If you reach the limit and are not finished, set a time to resume the discussion if it can't wait until the next scheduled meeting.
3. Establish some ground rules. In addition to a time limit, you may want to establish other rules for your meetings to ensure that they are a time for constructive discussion. It probably goes without saying that you should prohibit name-calling and yelling. Another ground rule might be that any topic that is brought up must be taken seriously.
4. When bringing up problems, express things in terms of how they affect you, not in terms of what your partner is doing wrong. Avoid blame and criticism. I discuss this in greater detail in my blog series on How to Fight Successfully.
5. Focus on one problem at at time. In fact, don't try to tackle more than one problem in a meeting. Limiting it to one will give you a greater chance of a good outcome and will avoid overwhelming either one of you.
6. Make sure each person gets to share their perspective on the problem. Again, see my previous blog posts for more on how to do this.
7. Use the meeting as a chance to express appreciation for the partner's efforts during the week, or for their willingness to listen and address problems. Even if there is a long way to go, look for reasons to be appreciative. Research on successful couples shows that they have a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. Expressing appreciation whenever you can will help boost your ratio in the positive direction. And it's a good idea to end the meeting on a positive note.
8. At the next meeting, be sure to check in about how it's going with the issue addressed at the last meeting.