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Establishing Ground Rules in Couples Communication

(This blog post was written by Elisabeth Mandel, LMFT. Elisabeth is an Associate Therapist at our practice and specializes in working with couples.)

According to Marty Babits (2009), author of “The Power of the Middle Ground,” couples can resolve conflicts without the threat of escalation by creating an atmosphere of emotional safety, otherwise known as middle-ground communication.

The seven guidelines for middle-ground communication are (p.153):

1) Avoid generalizing and stereotyping.

2) Do not blurt out responses.

3) No name calling.

4) Speak honestly and judiciously.

5) Develop patience. Sustain it.

6) Think about what your partner says in terms of who your partner is.

7) Time-out signal—have it in place; use it as needed.

Scenario: A couple is arguing about how to spend the holidays. They have agreed to host the festivities and invite both sets of parents. However, she would like everyone to stay at their home whereas he prefers that the parents sleep at a hotel. Below is an explanation of how one partner can use middle-ground communication (MGC) during a disagreement or conflict in order to prevent or reduce the likelihood of escalation, following a provocative remark by the other partner.

Avoid Generalizing and Stereotyping

She: You don’t value family.

MGC: Family is very important to me and sometimes we express it differently.

Do Not Blurt Out Responses

He: Forget it, I don’t care.

MGC: This is important for us to talk about.

No Name Calling

She: You’re such a *%$*)#%

MGC: That is a hurtful thing to say and it is not helpful for this discussion. Please apologize and then we can move on.

Speak Honestly and Judiciously

He: I want this to go well and having my parents sleep here will make me too stressed.

MGC: I want this to go well too so let’s work together to figure out how to minimize stress.

Develop Patience and Sustain It

She: I want to figure this out right now.

MGC: It’s good that we’re discussing it and we will figure this out when we come to an agreement.

Think About What Your Partner Says In Terms of Who Your Partner Is

He: I work hard so that I can pay for my parents to stay at a hotel.

MGC: We have different relationships with our parents and different ways of showing generosity. To me, it means sharing our home. What does it mean to you?

Time-Out Signal—Have It In Place; Use It As Needed

She: Maybe we should just cancel the holiday plans.

MGC: Let’s talk about this a little later so we have time to make the best decision together.

All couples face disagreements. The key to improving your communication skills as a couple is preventative intervention. These guidelines will help you and your partner turn disagreements into opportunities for greater understanding, respect and confidence in your relationship.

Couples that practice middle-ground communication always come out on top!

Babits, Marty (2009). The Power of the Middle Ground: A Couple’s Guide to Renewing Your Relationship. Amherst, NY: Prometheus




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