Dan Trathen DMin, PhD Clinical Psychologist & Certified Business & Life Coach

Keeping Mental Filters Clean in Marriage

By Daniel W. Trathen, D. Min. Ph. D.

I know when it is time to change our furnace filter. I begin to sneeze when the heat or air comes on. We are told to change these filters every month or so, but I confess that I get busy and forget. Likewise, the automotive industry recommends we change the oil filter in our car every three months or three thousand miles. Both manufactures suggest that regular maintenance will save money and lengthen their product’s life. Whether this is true or not, the principles of prevention are important in all areas of life. Seeking to understand each another is important in marriage maintenance. When it doesn’t happen it may be because of mental filters. Dirty filters are whatever clogs clear communication. Let’s take a look at three types of mental filters in marriage and then how to keep them clean.

The first filter is Inattention. Many of us may have heard our partner say or have said to them, “are you listening to me?” Inattention is an obstacle to clear communication. Other examples of inattention are too much noise in the room, preoccupation, or being too tired to communicate. When we are aware of these complications in communication we need to tell our partner and discuss another time to talk rather than just trying to fake it.

The second filter is Emotional States and Reactions. What mood are you in right now? It will affect how well you are paying attention to what you are reading. When we are tired we are not at our best and our listening and communication skills may not be as sharp as when we are more rested. Research shows that we give others more or less benefit of the doubt depending on how good of a mood we are in. If we are angry, sad, or depressed, we may find our filter more clogged and that may keep us from clear communication.

The third filter is Beliefs and Expectations. We may believe that someone means to hurt us if they raise their voice or we may have a belief that silence during an argument means the other person does not care. Many times the partner who is persistent in seeking to resolve disagreements is viewed as “nagging” and the one who withdraws from conflict is labeled as “not caring”. Research shows that we have an incredible propensity to see in others what we think we will see. Furthermore, people tend to behave the way we expect them to, because we influence their behavior, not just our own. Such negative interpretations can be very destructive when we expect the worst from each other.

Keeping these filters clean is as important to relationship health as blood is to our bodies. This can be achieved through listening. James 1:19 states, My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry… The book of Proverbs lists several passages on listening; Proverbs 5: l, 2, l3; l5:3l; l8:l3, l5; l9:20; 2l: 28; 23:22.

One way to keep our mental filters clean in marriage is to slow down our conflict situations using a tool called the Speaker/Listener technique. In the Speaker/Listener technique, a couple has simple rules to guide them during important or difficult talks. This is not complicated or deep, it is just one way to make good communication happen when you really need it. The structure (rules) of this technique can help free you from some of the fear of being invalidated, criticized, or ignored.

I do not recommend that everyone communicate in this highly structured manner most of the time. But, this is a great way to communicate when it gets heated, and you get bogged down. Here are the basic rules to keep the mental filters clean in marriage.

Rules for both of you:

  1. The Speaker is the one with the floor. Use a real object to designate the floor. The speaker keeps the floor while the listener paraphrases, and until he or she is ready to give up the floor.
  2. You share the floor over the course of a conversation. One starts, and may say a number of things for the listener to paraphrase. Then, the floor is passed to the Listener who becomes the Speaker. 
  3. No problem solving. During this technique you are going to focus on a good discussion and not try to prematurely come to solutions. Separating the problem discussion from problem solution is very important.

Rules for the Speaker:

  1. Don’t go on and on. The Speaker talks about his or her feelings and concerns in small enough bits that the Listener can paraphrase. You will have plenty of opportunity to say all you want.
  2. After talking for 30 seconds, stop and allow the Listener to paraphrase what has been said. If the paraphrase was not quite accurate, the Speaker should politely restate the part that was not correctly understood. 
  3. Speak for yourself. The Speaker tries to use “I” statements and avoid mind reading. 
  4. You can pass the floor to the listener, at any time to hear his or her side of the issue.

Rules for the Listener:

  1. Paraphrase what the Speaker is saying. Briefly repeat back what you heard the Speaker say, using your own words if you like. Make sure you understood what the Speaker meant to convey. 
  2. Do not offer your opinion or thoughts until you get the floor. This is the hardest part of being a good listener. Your job is to speak only in the service of understanding the Speaker. Any words or gestures to show your opinion are not allowed, including making faces! 
  3. Concentrate on what the Speaker is saying, and attempt to edit out your internal responses. In arguments, people are usually not listening, but preparing their next point instead. Focus on your partner’s point of view! Validate your partner.

Clear communication is experienced best through clean filters. Keeping yourself aware of tendencies towards inattention, your emotional states and reaction, and your beliefs and expectations and applying the Speaker/Listener technique can be useful in keeping the mental filters in your relation clean. Clean your mental filters regularly. If you have difficulty it may take a professional’s help to assist in cleaning out and changing the filters in your marriage and coaching you on keeping them clean.

Material adapted from A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage. Stanley, S. M., Trathen D.W., McCain S., Bryan M., 1998, Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers. San Francisco, California.

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