You want to talk about it. He would rather stick a hot poker in his eye. You keep prodding. He leaves the room.

According to a new study in the June 2009 edition of the journal Personal Relationships, this kind of “demand-withdraw” communication is depressing, literally.

In relationships where a pattern develops when one spouse wants to continue discussing a marital disagreement even after the other spouse has tried to end the discussion by say, changing the topic or leaving the room (usually with the other spouse not far behind, still yakking), the study found increased levels of depressive symptoms (increased sadness, fatigue, poor sleeping and eating behaviours).

Interestingly, however, contrary to the stereotype (one I’ve in fact perpetuated with the above example), it’s not always the woman pursuing and the man distancing.

According to the study’s findings, when it comes to “demand-withdraw” communication within their relationship, husbands and wives both reported that they and their spouse took on the “demander role” and “withdrawer role” equally.

In other words, both men and women can be equally lousy communicators.

Given the impact this kind of communication clearly has upon one’s mental health, it’s in any couple’s interest to invest some time in improving their communication style. “When relationship communication is better, we and our partners show fewer symptoms of depression,” concluded the authors of the study, based out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Notre Dame.

One of the best exercises I’ve ever encountered to help couples improve their communication is something called “mirroring.” It’s a bit like that telephone game you played at birthday parties as a kid. One partner says something to the other, and the other repeats it back and then asks if they got it right. If he or she didn’t, the first partner clarifies what they said, and you repeat the exercise until the first partner is satisfied that the second partner has clearly understood.

In this way, instead of pushing each other’s buttons, you’re both listening and feeling heard — in other words, communicating.

It might sound tedious and artificial, but if you practice this a few times a week for several months, you’ll be surprised how effective it can be in changing unhealthy communication patterns.

That is, if you can keep your partner in the room long enough to try it.

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