• Dr. Andrew Kitchenham

Communication in Marital Breakdowns

I have discussed communication in various formats but today I would like to zero in on communication in marriages that could lead to marital breakdowns. Next week, I will continue with the scenario described below but I will discuss strategies for dealing with anger.


In this scenario, Merv and Martha who have two children, Melissa (a 17-year-old) and Milt (a 10-year-old) are having marital problems and Merv is struggling with how to deal with their rebellious teenager. Melissa has been tattooed several times and has several body piercings without her father’s knowledge or permission. Merv heard from a neighbour that Melissa was out past midnight with her boyfriend (who is in his 20s) and she was sneaking in her bedroom window after “making out” with the boyfriend. Merv is furious and confronts Melissa and in their argument, he pulls on her cardigan sleeve which revealed a large red-heart tattoo on her shoulder blade. Merv loses his temper with Melissa and she retorted “get off my back and mind your own goddamn business” at which he began to physically threaten and verbally abuse Melissa. Martha and Milt witnessed the whole altercation and she begs Merv to calm down before something happens as he is prone to temper-filled rages and has come close to physically harming Martha and the children. Merv turns his anger towards Martha and tells her to leave so he can deal with Melissa. Martha has decided that she has had enough and tells the children to gather their belongings as the three are leaving to motel until Merv can learn to control his anger.


It is now three weeks since the incident and Martha wants to bring the children home as she is low on money but also wants to give their marriage another try; Merv really wants them to be home as a family but he is also feeling belittled, disrespected, and humiliated.


Merv and Martha are having clear miscommunication issues which is one of the primary reasons given for marriage failure (Landau, 2018). To wit, it appears that Merv and Martha are having a difficult time understanding each other’s feelings; Merv does not understand Martha’s motives for leaving the marriage and Martha might not understand Merv’s motives for wanting to continue in the marriage; Merv does not seem to understand why Martha has been unhappy in the marriage; and, neither understands “what was expected of them by the other spouse to save the marriage” (Landau, 2018, p. 46). In other words, a major task in mediation is to deal with the miscommunication and poor communication in the marriage and deal with it in the very beginning of the process.


As a mediator, there are several ways for me to drive communication between Merv and Martha so that they will be able to absorb information much more easily and be more likely to present their respective points of view more effectively and more constructively (Landau, 2018). First, I would collaboratively set some basic guidelines with Merv and Martha such as addressing each by their respective names and not by their pronouns (e.g., “he” or “she”), directing comments to each other and not to me as the mediator, making eye contact with each other as much as possible, speaking in the first person, writing down comments with provided paper and pens, and allowing each other to speak before replying (i.e., not interrupting) (Landau, 2018). Second, I would model and teach emotional and behavioural techniques to be used during the mediation such as counting to 10 before replying to the other spouse or to the mediator, using a visible object (e.g., popsicle stick) to hold up to indicate the person needs a timeout rather than a finger since that gesture could be considered a hostile indicator (Chapman, 2015), and using a tangible object (e.g., smooth rock) to self-soothe or touch your thumb to each finger as a way to ground yourself if something triggers you (Potter-Efron & Potter-Efron, 2011). Lastly, I would want to teach the two the communication strategy of stating the specific behaviour that is upsetting to the other spouse rather than using blaming language (Landau, 2014). For instance, Martha might state something like “ I would be much more willing to chat to you about why you are upset with me or the kids if you did not raise your voice to me” so that Merv would know what about his reaction upsets Martha rather than just accusing him of losing his temper.


There are clear power imbalances in this scenario. Between Merv and Martha, there could be reward power as Merv or Martha could offer the other some form of reward or desirable consequence (i.e., Martha and the children will come home) if that person agrees to something else (i.e., no more outbursts from Merv or agreeing to use specific anger management strategies or attend counselling). Additionally, given that Martha has run out of money at the shelter, there would be resource power in that Merv appears to have the resource of money that Martha does not have. one person having a resource in demand (e.g., money or time) that the other person does not have (i.e., resource power) Between Merv and Melissa, there is coercive power since Merv can inflict punishments or undesirable consequences on Melissa (Ewert, Barnard, Laffier, & Maynard, 2019). I also feel that there are elements of habitual power and definitional power in their relationship since Merv would have had authority over his daughter for all her life and it has become a learned behaviour (i.e., a habit) and he is her father which means he could have de facto authority over her given the cultural norms present in this Canadian home (i.e. definition) (Mayer, 2000).


In reality, this scenario would take several sessions to the issues could be unpacked and we could apply some of the communication strategies that I have discussed previously (i.e., Fisher & Ury, 2011) before we could make some real progress towards resolution. The first would be to address the communication between Merv and Martha and then move on to some strategies for dealing with anger which I will outline in the blog next week.


Further Reading:


Chapman, G. (2015). Anger: Taming a powerful emotion. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.


Ewert, C., Barnard, G., Laffier, J., & Maynard, M. L. (2019). Choices in approaching conflict: Principles of dispute resolution (2nd ed.). Toronto, ON: Emond Publishing.


Fisher, R., & Ury, W. (2011). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in. Toronto, ON: Penguin.


Harper, G. (2004). The joy of conflict: Transforming victims, villains, and heroes in the workplace and at home. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.


Landau, B. (2018). Managing the process. In B. Landau and L. Wolfson (Eds.), The family dispute resolution handbook (6th ed.) (pp. 45-68). Toronto, ON: LexisNexis.


Lang, M. D. (2004). Understanding and responding to power in mediation. In J. Folberg, A. L. Milne, & P. Salem (Eds.), Divorce and family mediation: Models, techniques, and applications (pp. 209-224). New York, NY: Guilford Press.


Mayer, B. (2000). The dynamics of conflict resolution: A practitioner’s guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Potter-Efron, P. S. (2006). Letting go of anger: The eleven most common anger styles and what to do about them. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.


Potter-Efron, R. T., & Potter-Efron, P. S. (2011). 30-minute therapy for anger: Everything you need to know in the least amount of time. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.


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