People don't just get upset. They contribute to their upsetness.
-- Albert Ellis
The joke goes that talking to yourself is the first sign of madness. However using the right self-talk can actually save your marriage and other relationships.
For a good marriage, who do you think is the most important person with whom you should communicate well? If you think it's your spouse, think again.
The most important person to converse with constructively is yourself! You need not try to resolve every situation by talking it over with your partner. Self-talk refers to the messages we say to ourselves. You can change destructive messages you tell yourself into supportive ones.
Using the self-talk technique
Here's the five-step method proposed by psychologist Pamela Butler, PhD, author of Talking to Yourself: How Cognitive Behavior Therapy Can Change Your Life:
Step 1. Be aware. Listen to your own self-talk.
Step 2. Evaluate. Decide if your inner dialogue is supportive or destructive.
Step 3. Identify. Determine the source of the cognitive distortion or thinking error that is maintaining your inner speech. Is it
• the Driver, an inner self who commands you to be perfect, hurry up, be strong, please others, or try hard;
• the Stopper, an inner self who catastrophizes, self-labels, self-judges in negative ways, and sets rigid requirements; or
• the Confuser, an inner self who makes arbitrary inferences, fails to be aware of the full picture, overgeneralizes, and makes other cognitive distortions?
Step 4. Support yourself. Replace your negative self-talk with permission and self-affirmation. For example, if you are inclined to please others too often at your own expense, you can replace negative self-talk with permission by saying, "At times it is important for me to do or say what I want, even if my doing so does not please my partner at the moment."
Step 5. Develop your guide. Decide what action you need to take, based on your new supportive position.
Wife's Self-Talk Fosters Appreciation for Husband
In this example, a wife uses self-talk when she is in a funk over the fact that her husband stays in a relatively low-paying job when she believes he could earn much more elsewhere. She asks herself these five questions, as suggested by Dr. Butler, and answers each one:
1. What am I telling myself? "I'm telling myself that my husband isn't good enough; he's lazy. With his ability and experience, he should have a job that pays more. But he just stays where he is earning a lot less than he could."
2. Is my self-talk helping? "No, it is not, because it's making me resent my husband."
3. Is the Driver, Stopper, or Confuser operating? "My Confuser is causing me to fail to be aware of the full picture."
4. What permission and self-affirmation will I give myself? "I give myself permission to be aware of the full picture: My husband purposely chose a low-stress job because he wants to be able to relax evenings and weekends. I like his easygoing nature and was attracted to him in the first place because of it. I wouldn't be happy married to a competitive type who comes home from work all stressed out."
5. What action will I take based on my new supportive position? "I will remember to appreciate having a husband who comes home in a good mood, talks to me, spends time with our children, and does chores. If I am concerned about money, I will economize or figure out a way to earn more myself."
This example shows the effectiveness of communicating with yourself. It was more constructive for this wife to recognize and transform her self-talk into a more supportive message than to confront her husband about what had been bothering her.
By applying the five steps of self-talk, we can catch ourselves making negative assumptions about our self or our spouse that may not be correct. If we skip the five-step process, it is easy to jump from an unhelpful thought to resentment, self-pity, or other feelings, which are based on a false interpretation of our partner's behavior, and to act them out with relationship harming behaviors.
Husband's Self-Talk Helps Overcome Panic about Marriage
In this example, a husband feels upset because his wife has not been responding recently to his attempts to converse with her. She looks annoyed and answers his questions in monosyllables. The husband's initial thought is "She doesn't love me anymore." He feels distraught and fears she'll leave him. It crosses his mind to consult an attorney to clarify his legal rights. Realizing he is working himself up to a panic, he decides to use self-talk.
First, he recognizes that thinking his wife no longer loves him is not helpful, because it is making him feel insecure about his marriage. He determines that his Stopper is operating, causing him to catastrophize -- that is, to assume the worst.
He then gives himself permission to come up with this more realistic, helpful message to himself: "I remember that she told me last night that her job has become really stressful lately because she is covering for a vacationing coworker. She is on the phone all day and barely gets any downtime. I can see how she wouldn't feel like chatting after a day like that. We still love each other."
He decides on an action plan: he will give her as much space as she needs. He decides also to offer to give her a back massage, a cup of tea, or something else she might like.
Can you see how the self-talk technique can prevent you from wallowing in destructive thoughts, which easily lead to hurt feelings; reactive, "I'll show you" behaviors; and other actions that distance you from your partner?
The importance of self-talk cannot be overstated. By using this skill at the right times, you are likely to become more receptive and empathic toward yourself, your spouse, and others.
Note: This article is adapted from Chapter 8 of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You've Always Wanted (New World Library, 2014). Self-talk is one of seven positive communication skills explained step by step in this book.