Part I: “We’re Not Communicating”
Communication problems are the number one complaint that couples have about their relationship. They either aren’t communicating well, or they aren’t communicating at all. They seem to communicate perfectly well at work and in every other aspect of their lives, but somehow the couples relationship is different.
Why is that?
The answers reveal that we cannot work on communication issues in a vacuum. We also have to address the emotions underlying the communication — or the avoidance of communication.
When we learn to communicate more effectively, we are also learning to be present with one another in a calm and supportive way. We’re learning to manage emotions in a more mature way. And we’re healing the relationship so we can grow in deep and meaningful ways, together.
Over the next several weeks, I will be giving you the tools you need to communicate more effectively and more lovingly with your partner, so you can enjoy the best relationship you can.
Missing the message
I have seen couples who have difficulty clearly communicating the most basic information. At the end of a phone conversation, he believes he has communicated that he will be home several hours late, and she believes she heard that he will be home on time. Such a couple clearly needs help with the nuts and bolts of communication, and lots of practice reflecting back what they heard. An assessment for attention deficit disorder may be a good idea as well.
But for most couples, the problem is in effectively communicating about feelings or about topics that are laden with emotion. So the goal is more than just improved basic communication skills. It’s learning to manage emotional states as well. Couples communication exercises help us to do that.
Bottling and exploding
Some individuals have a hard time asking for what they want or need. They either don’t do it at all, leaving them feeling frustrated and unfulfilled, or they bottle up their feelings until they finally speak up in a sharp and attacking way. Out of the clear blue sky, their partner will hear, “You never take me out anymore.” That blaming, accusatory tone triggers a defensive response from their partner. The defensive response leads to escalation of the blaming and complaining, and soon they have a fight that results in hurt feelings, digging in, and even less chance of either partner getting what they want.
Better communication tools would help, but what is also needed is appropriate assertiveness skills and emotional self-control. Blurting out demands and complaints without regard for how they will be received is simply not a winning strategy in any area of life, including relationships.
Angry pursuit vs. retreat and withdrawal
A common pattern is that one partner angrily pursues, while the other retreats and withdraws. That withdrawal triggers even more angry pursuing, followed by even more withdrawal. The more aggressive partner needs to learn to express themselves in ways that are easier for their partner to hear and respond to positively. And the withdrawn partner needs to find their voice and assert their needs and feelings.
And then there are the relationships where both parties are avoiding contact with each other. They each have walls built up, and they may have started living separate lives, even under the same roof. They need to learn to communicate in ways that feel safe and rewarding, instead of scary and pointless.
Do you see yourself in any of these scenarios? These are common problems, that have effective solutions. You just have to decide that it’s time to make a change and take the risk of trying something different.
Next time, we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of how you and your partner can start to improve your communication, and create a satisfying and rewarding relationship – for life.