What Did You Say, Honey?


Negative Communication Patterns Can Destroy Your Relationship

Part I | Part II

Communicating effectively is essential for building a happy family.  Effective communication is a skill that should be acquired and practiced regularly because it reduces misconceptions and misunderstandings between family members and helps them avoid conflict.

Prophet Muhammad (sal Allahu `alayhi wa sallam – peace be upon him) advised us to be gentle, kind, compassionate, and lenient in our dealings with one another.  On the authority of Aisha (radi Allahu `anha – may Allah be pleased with her), the Messenger of Allah (saw) is reported to have said: “Allah is kind and He loves kindness in all affairs.”  (Bukhari)

390803227_b368fb0a30_oSuccessful communication strengthens the family bond and makes it less likely that issues will spill over into physical abuse.  Communicating effectively begins with the couple.  Regular, poorly handled conflict between parents is difficult on children.

Couples often fall into negative communication patterns if they don’t handle conflict well.  Negative communication patterns can tear marriages and families apart, leading to unhappiness and divorce.  Research has shown that negative patterns and behaviors have a much stronger effect on marriages than the positive ones.  It is estimated that in order to maintain a happy marriage, a couple must engage in five to twenty positives for every negative (Gottman, 1993; Notarius and Markman, 1993).

The four main negative communication patterns are called the Communication Danger Signs.  Couples should prevent or change these patterns if they want to build and maintain a successful marriage.

Communication Danger Sign #1: Escalation
Definition: responding back and forth negatively so that the conflict increases

We often begin talking about an issue calmly.  Then someone says something to upset the other person, who then responds back negatively.  The calm conversation soon escalates into an angry argument full of hurtful comments, loud voices, and intense emotions.

For example, let’s say Sarah returns from a meeting and finds the kitchen to be a mess.  The following conversation might ensue:

Sarah: Ahmad, why don’t you ever clean up after yourself?
Ahmad: (exhausted after making dinner) I was busy making dinner for the kids.  You never clean up after yourself either.
Sarah: (getting upset) What do you mean I never clean up after myself?  I make dinner all the time, and the kitchen doesn’t look like this!  All you did was make a little bit of pasta!
Ahmad: (getting upset too, and becoming sarcastic) Of course!  You’re right; all I did was make some pasta.  I didn’t do anything else.
Sarah: (increasing in intensity) That’s right.  You never do anything else.  I have to do everything around here.  I don’t know what I got from marrying you; just more work and more headaches.
Ahmad: (hurt) Ok, then maybe you shouldn’t have married me!

When we allow arguments to escalate, we say horrible things to each other even if we don’t really mean them.  Unfortunately, some things we say can’t be taken back.  What’s dangerous in the scenario above is that Ahmad and Sarah began talking about the dirty kitchen and ended up questioning their decision to marry each other.    Because they were tired and stressed out, they let their conversation get out of control instead of hearing each other out and resolving a simple issue.

Solution: De-Escalate.

To change the negative pattern of escalation, do the opposite: de-escalate!

  • Soften your tone. Change the way you’re speaking from harsh to calm and kind.
  • Hear and acknowledge the other person’s point of view. Put yourself in your wife’s shoes or your husband’s shoes.  Try to understand where they’re coming from.
  • Give up the need to win. Winning is not going to bring any benefit.
  • Call for a time-out. Agree to talk about it at a later time when everyone is calmer.

So, what could Sarah and Ahmad have done differently?

Sarah: Ahmad, why don’t you ever clean up after yourself?
Ahmad: (exhausted after making dinner) I was busy making dinner for the kids.  You never clean up after yourself either.
Sarah: (softening her tone) Actually, I do clean up.  But I guess you’re pretty tired after work and dinner.
Ahmad: (calming down and acknowledging Sarah’s point of view) I am tired, but I know you hate a dirty kitchen.  Sorry for the mess.  Can you help me clean up later?
Sarah: Sure.  Thanks for making dinner tonight.

The goal is to stop the negative process before it erupts into a full blown, nasty fight.

Communication Danger Sign #2: Invalidation
Definition: putting down the thoughts, opinions, or character of the other

When we talk with our loved ones, sometimes we subtly or directly put down their thoughts, feelings, or character.  We disrespect them by calling them names, questioning their character, and de-valuing their opinions and feelings.

Invalidation can be subtle or extreme.  Examples of subtle invalidation include: “Why can’t you ever do anything right?” or “Someone’s feeling a little insulted.”  Examples of extreme invalidation include: “You’re such a loser” or “We should have you checked into a mental institution.”

Solution: Be Respectful.

The Quran tells us in Surah Al-Hujurat:

O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after [one's] faith. And whoever does not repent – then it is those who are the wrongdoers. (49:11)

  • Treat each other with respect. Give respect. Expect respect.   Remember the famous hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (saw): “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” [al-Bukhari, Muslim]
  • Listen and acknowledge the other person’s words and point of view. Even if you don’t agree with everything your wife or husband says, you must still validate their feelings.
  • Do over. When you realize you’ve blown it and said something that hurt the other person, just say: OK, let’s do that over.  Immediately backtrack and talk about it in a different way.

 

Communication Danger Sign #3: Negative Interpretations
Definition: making negative and unfair assumptions about what the other person was thinking

Too often, we engage in mind-reading by making unfair assumptions about the other person’s intentions.  Instead of looking for the positives, we make negative judgments about the other person’s thoughts and behaviors, believing that they purposely meant to hurt us.  Because of negative interpretations we believe the worst instead of the best in each other.

We can do this in two ways:

  1. Verbally: “You did not want my mother to come over, anyway” or “You couldn’t have cared less about what was important to me.”
  2. Unexpressed thoughts which fuel our own anger: “She knows how much that bothers me, but she just keeps on doing it.” “He made me wait on purpose because he’s still angry about yesterday.  How immature!”

Sami engaged in negative interpretations when his wife Amena told him that she wasn’t sure they could visit his parents during Eid.  Amena was concerned about not having the financial means to cover the expenses of the trip, but Sami became extremely angry and assumed that Amena hated his parents and was trying to avoid spending time with them.

Interestingly, children learn to do this as well from their parents.  For example, when Omar hit his brother Musa, Musa said, “I know Omar did it on purpose!  It wasn’t an accident.”  Everything is seen as intentional and personal.

Solution: Fight Back (against Negative Interpretations).

The Quran also tells us in Surat Al-Hujurat:

O you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. And fear Allah ; indeed, Allah is Accepting of repentance and Merciful. (49:12)

  • Assume the best, not the worst.
  • Give the other person excuses. Give them the benefit of the doubt.  We all know the following saying: “Try to find up to seventy reasons for your brother/sister, and if you can’t, then say, “Maybe he has an excuse that I am not aware of!”
  • Look for evidence to the contrary. Think of all the times the source of unhappiness didn’t happen or wasn’t true.
  • Stay positive!

Communication Danger Sign #4: Avoidance and Withdrawal
Definition: unwillingness to engage in or stay with important discussions

Sometimes, we think it’s easier if we ignore the problem or end difficult conversations as soon as possible.  During a discussion, we might withdraw by getting up and leaving the room, becoming quieter and then not talking, or agreeing quickly to some suggestion without any intention of following through.  Sometimes, we might avoid the issue by preventing the conversation from happening in the first place.  We can do that by changing the subject, not being available to talk, or just saying the subject isn’t important to talk about.  Usually, one person pushes the issue while the other tries to avoid it or pull out if it.

139156784_086e01b0bc_oThere are some gender differences.  Not always, but most commonly, men tend to withdraw and women tend to pursue.  Many men will abstain from discussing issues because they don’t want to get into a fight.  They will withdraw and try to get away, while women will “turn up the volume” and try harder to get a response.

For example, Halima walks up to her husband Yusuf and says, “I really want to talk to you about helping around the house.”  Yusuf tries to avoid the discussion and says, “I can’t talk about anything right now.  I have to leave to the masjid.”  Meanwhile, he’s looking for his keys.  His wife becomes annoyed and says, “You never can talk about it,  but I have to have some help.”  Yusuf insists that he can’t talk, so his wife becomes angry and begins to yell.  Yusuf becomes quiet and walks out the door.

Solution: Change the Cycle.

  • Start a discussion gently and calmly.
  • Don’t push the issue.  If the other person starts to withdraw, then….
  • Set aside a new time for the discussion.
  • Talk with each other about the fact that avoiding a problem won’t make it go away

In the example above, Halima might have approached her husband during a better time and could have said instead, “We have to talk about this sometime.  If you can’t talk about it now, what time would be better?”  Similarly, Yusuf would have been better off making time to discuss the issue instead of ignoring it, as the problem would most likely never disappear and instead cause resentment in his wife’s heart.

Conflict is inevitable, but we can change our communication patterns.

Conflict is an inevitable part of the human experience.  How we choose to handle conflict will impact whether our relationships with our spouses and families are positive or negative.  During any type of conflict, it is helpful to do the following:

1. Recognize the four Communication Danger Signs:

  • Escalation
  • Invalidation
  • Negative Interpretations
  • Avoidance and Withdrawal

2. Stop.  Call for a time out.

3. Do something healthy to calm yourself down.
Prophet Muhammad (saw) provided us with the following strategies when feeling angry:

  • Seek refuge with Allah from Shaytan.
  • Change your position. As recommended in a hadith, if you’re angry while standing, sit down.  If you’re still angry, lay down.
  • Perform wudu. As counseled in a hadith, “Anger is from Shaytan, and Shaytan is created from fire, and fire is extinguished by water; so if one of you become angry, let him perform wudu.” [Abu Dawood]
  • Remain silent.

4. Call for “Time In” to finish the discussion safely.

When we are upset, we often don’t share what we are really thinking and instead say something to win or hurt the other person.  To prevent this during a conversation, let us ask ourselves: “What is it that I want to accomplish?”  If our goal isn’t to resolve the issue, then engaging in the four negative patterns will work well in destroying our relationships.

However, if our goal is to strengthen our relationships and move forward positively, then we need to counteract the four danger signs with effective communication that will allow us to express our concerns to one another in a gentle and respectful manner

May Allah (swt) help us in communicating effectively, and may He strengthen our families

This material was adapted from the leading divorce-prevention/marriage enhancement program called PREP© (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program), and the corresponding book 12 Hours to a Great Marriage by Markman and Stanley.

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18 Comments

  1. Omar says:

    Super article… I love these topics

    Mash’Allah. I check this blog daily and enjoy the social, da’wa, and Shari’ topics much keep it up team

  2. Tazeen says:

    Excellent post, Amal! Very insightful alhumdulillah.

  3. Shireen says:

    JazakamAllahu khairan for the post! So relevant for Muslim families. I love the Gottman reference to negative sentiment overrides and the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” MashaAllah, keep the great articles coming! Yay for Muslim Social Workers! :D

  4. Laila says:

    Salaam alaikoum,

    The translation of verse 49:11 is incorrect. Please check it; it’s a duplicate of the translation of 49:12

    Jazzakoum Allah khairan.

  5. Muhammad Sani says:

    Jazakumullahu Khayran,
    Thanks a lot for posting this article, its very beneficial, please post more on marital relationship enhancement.
    Barakallahu Feekum

  6. Um Sumayyah says:

    ma sha’ Allah! great read!

  7. Zahra says:

    Ditto to Um Sumayyah’s comments! Masha’Allah.

  8. Ahmed Saleh says:

    Masha Allah

  9. Aizat says:

    Masahallah! This is just the reminder i needed.
    Jazzakaum Allah Khayran.

  10. Ali says:

    Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand. (4:34)

    How indeed do you square this verse with the others? You could provide some tedious rhetorical response, but that would not change the fact that this very verse is the justification of the abuse of women in most of the Muslim world.
    Men are in charge of women? How offensive! How very easily it instills the idea that because you pay for them, you are superior to them, because God has made it that way? How disgraceful!

    If we are to assume that a text from more than 14 centuries ago is infallible, then we must address these horrific ideas as well. Our moral sensibilities should never allow us to ever denigrate women as second class, slaves to the whims of men, and it should NEVER be acceptable for men to beat women.

  11. tauseef says:

    Nice try, Ali.
    The verse in question is only one of many in the Qur’an, and when Allah states that there is no contradiction in the Qur’an, then we must bear in mind this maxim when studying, translating, and contextualizing, which I sincerely hope you have the opportunity to do.
    The word that is translated to ‘beat’ also means ‘ to separate’, and there are recent translations that are instituting this latter translation, as it is more in line with the overall message of the Qur’an. This may seem like a bit of reverse engineering to the faithless, but if the Qur’an has no contradiction, then this verse must match up with the others that advise reasoning, mercy and kindness. If Allah wanted us to beat our wives, He would have sent His apostle with rules and examples to follow( never happened), and wife beating would have been a subject of theological debate. Conversely, there are examples of the Prophet (SAW) separating from His wives after minor incidents, referred to in Sura 66.
    However, upon reading His message, one becomes increasingly aware of the magnitude of the sin of arrogance -007.036
    (YUSUFALI translation): But those who reject Our signs and treat them with arrogance,- they are companions of the Fire, to dwell therein (for ever). no man with a drop of arrogance in his heart will enter paradise.
    This is repeated in 7:40, 7.133 , 17.4 , 23.067, 27.14, 31.7 . So, arrogance is a great sin, and the husband is tasked with the responsibility of persuading his wife not to follow in that direction. Logically, one would assume that the Creator, in His insistence to condemn arrogance, would prescribe its opposite: humility.11:23
    (YUSUFALI translation): But those who believe and work righteousness, and humble themselves before their Lord,- They will be companions of the gardens, to dwell therein for aye!
    Since there is no contradiction in the Qur’an, and instructs mankind to follow reason, it is perfectly logical that, in seeking humility, and shunning arrogance, separation and contemplation would be recommended, and violence and domination would not.
    Allah most definitely knows best.

    • Ali says:

      I was not familiar with this translation of the word “beat” into “separate”. It is altogether new to me. Most translations have the word “beat” or “admonish” or “scourge”. I concede that is progress that the beating of women is being removed from the newer translations of the Qur’an.

      With regard to the historical context, as-Shafi states that “hitting is permitted, but not hitting is preferred”. al-Razi in his Tafsir Al-Kabir states that the verse was revealed after a woman complained of being beaten by her husband, and after this verse had been revealed, the Prophet said that ‘We wanted one thing but Allah wanted another, and what Allah wanted is best.’ (Narrated by Hasan al-Basri)

      Sahih Muslim Book 9 #3506: Jabir b. ‘Abdullah reported: Abu Bakr came and sought permission to see Allah’s Messenger. He found people sitting at his door and none amongst them had been granted permission, but it was granted to Abu Bakr and he went in. Then came ‘Umar and he sought permission and it was granted to him, and he found Allah’s Apostle sitting sad and silent with his wives around him. He (Hadrat ‘Umar) said: I would say something which would make the Holy Prophet laugh, so he said: Messenger of Allah, I wish you had seen (the treatment meted out to) the daughter of Khadija when she asked me some money, and I got up and slapped her on her neck. Allah’s Messenger laughed and said: They are around me as you see, asking for extra money. Abu Bakr then got up went to ‘Aisha and slapped her on the neck, and ‘Umar stood up before Hafsa and slapped her saying: You ask Allah’s Messenger which he does not possess. They said: By Allah, we do not ask Allah’s Messenger for anything he does not possess….

      [The hadith goes on about divorcing wives].

      Now clearly there is theological debate about this. Historically beatings have happened, and have been done by the Sahabah. And not just any, but Abu Bakr and Umar, hit their daughters, the Mothers of the Faithful, and in the very presence of the Prophet. And about money?

      It bothers me to the very core that it is acceptable on some level to beat women. I just cannot conceive of any reason where it would be acceptable for men to beat women.

  12. fadlin says:

    jazakala kheirin:)
    for this usefull knowledge
    i even got a copy with me because the hardest part
    is to really try to stick and pratice what u have learned
    barakallahu fek…

  13. aysha s says:

    A very helpful article indeed… And it’s so easy to talk in this way without realising it! So it was great to have this reminder…. jazakAllah!

  14. Omar says:

    Jazakallah khairan katheera. This is invaluable. Only Allah can reward for such a fine work. May Allah reward every soul who is directly or indirectly involved in the production of this article.

  15. Sabina says:

    Assalam alaikum wr wb, brothers and sisters.

    “Successful communication strengthens the family bond and makes it less likely that issues will spill over into physical abuse.”

    This sentence is singularly ill-advised. It makes it seem that negative communication somehow leads to physical abuse, or that physical abuse is warranted when negative communication patterns persist.

    Only the most despicable of people beat their spouses. This is the command of Allah (SWT), as evidenced by the impeccable character of Prophet Muhammad (SAWS).

    Wassalam and Jazakhallah khair katheeran,
    Sabina.

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