“Our communication is terrible! Can you help us with this?” Hands down, one of the most common complaints I hear about relationship issues is that communication has broken down. At times, I am tempted to respond, “Why, of course. I’ll have you both fixed up in a jiffy.” But we all know that this is not like having an oil change or a dental cleaning. Communication is at the very soul of the relationship itself, but it is often too scary for couples to think about it in those terms.
Prior to my life as a clinical psychologist, I spent several years at a seminary, teaching—among other topics—homiletics, the study of preaching. In addition to the history of preaching across the centuries, homiletics is informed by a broader study of rhetoric, dating back to centuries before Christ, along with contemporary applications of communication, usually with some electronic medium.
In homiletics, communication requires a message, a channel, and a receiver. When communication is effective, the message as intended is received as intended. When communication breaks down, problems may occur at any or all points along the line: The message itself could be garbled, the channel might be filled with noise that distorts the message, and the receiver may be damaged or not set to the proper frequency.
Communication is about Character
Most spouses seeking treatment use the word communicate. I think the choice of words is significant. They do not say, “We can’t talk to each other” or “We don’t seem tounderstand each other.” Talking and understanding are but subheadings belonging to a more comprehensive consideration: communication. Positively speaking, effective communication requires talking, listening, understanding, “feeling” gotten or understood, making sure the other “feels” gotten or understood, validating, and empathizing.
Negatively, effective communication requires not blaming, not being defensive, notretaliating, not shutting down, not stonewalling, not lying, not deflecting, not displacing anger onto your partner, not threatening your spouse, not changing the subject just because you feel uncomfortable, and so on! Communication in a marriage is nothing less than intercourse, deeply spiritual and psychological intercourse. And when this type of intimacy falters, when they can be honest about it with themselves, it shakes the couple to their core.
Communication, then, is much less about technicalities than it is about character; less about skill development than personal growth. It is less about the mouth and ears and much more about the heart and soul.
What Really is the Problem?
So, the question has many dimensions: What will it take for us as a couple to feel emotionally intimate? What will it take for us to risk openness, to welcome our spouse’s thoughts and feelings and dreams and concerns with an open and eager heart? To protect our spouse’s vulnerabilities without walking on eggshells? To find the energy to engage at a deeper level? To wade through the consequences of my trauma so that I am able to hear what my spouse means in this moment instead of simply assuming this interaction is like the painful one(s) of my, or our, past?
This leads to a more fundamental question that resides within a couple seeking therapy to improve “communication,” namely, “Is it really worth all the effort to find this place of emotional harmony? Wouldn’t I be just as well off if I scuttled this relationship and, a) lived by myself so that I don’t have to face these complexities and stressors , or, b) started over with someone else ‘easier’ to engage?”
Many spouses run this kind of cost/benefit analysis when they begin therapy: In the end, will it really be worth it, or should I simply cut my losses now? Deep down, many suspect that it is one’s spouse who is at fault for the communication breakdown, and secretly want the therapist to cure him or her so that it will be fine for me (since my contribution to this matter is very small, requiring just a little tweaking or no tweaking at all).
And, by the way, sometimes the issue is not about communication at all: it is about betrayal or deceit. Your spouse would understand clearly that you had an affair with your co-worker, but you cannot figure out the “right words” to tell her or him. Your partner would clearly grasp the concept that you have been raiding your child’s college fund for your own pursuits (e.g., gambling, shopping, etc.), but, what to say … what to say? These are not communication issues at their core. You have to face the consequences of your deeds. We as humans simply cannot have our cake and eat it too, despite our desperation to figure out a way to do so.
Also, violence is not a communication issue as we are dealing with it here. Make no mistake, violence communicates clearly: YOU WILL DO WHAT I SAY OR ELSE! I begin to realize that the nature of the interchanges between spouses is not about communication, but about violence when I hear, either in session or from reports of their exchanges outside of the session, how one spouse demeans the other.
Often it is straightforward name calling, sometimes it is threats, and many times it is subtle but cutting. The question I get from the violent spouse is, “Please make my partner change so that I won’t have to resort to saying those sorts of things. I really am not comfortable having to resort to that type of tactic.”
Before we can tackle the subject of communication head-on, I believe it is important to see that the number-one barrier to communication is blindness: an inability to see how I am a problem in my relationship.
Often, it is defensive blindness: I cannot tolerate the psychological pain I will suffer if I admit certain truths about myself; therefore, I will utilize time-tested self-protective mechanisms like projection (placing my own faults onto someone else), transference (I will not address the reality of my life as a child in my family because it is easier to see my parents’ faults in you), repression (the burial of my history in my unconscious),splitting(everything is black or white, an elimination of complexity; you are either good or bad, I am either good or bad).
This is just a very brief treatment of defense mechanisms and is intended to open the door to consideration of how defense mechanisms work interpersonally, how they contribute to our inability to see the truth about ourselves.
One of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People revolves around the central task of communication: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” I have not found a simpler, more elegant recipe for effective communication than that. Notice that this is first and foremost an attitude of the heart directed to the listener: Seek first to understand, not to correct, defend, or remind. It requires the listener to be eager and hungry to know the speaker and it places primary responsibility on the listener, not on the speaker.
In other words, speaking nakedly requires such a risk that we must not require the speaker to do it perfectly (though we can talk about ways a speaker can make it easier on the listener). It is up to the listener to clarify, empathize, and WANT to get it. Otherwise, just go read a book or watch TV; that would be better for the marriage: Those activities may not improve closeness, but they will usually do less harm than a listener who does not want to hear! Covey starts with the receiver: The listener has a great deal of responsibility in determining whether the communication will be effective or not.
So if you and your spouse find yourselves in a place of painful communication, try not looking for a quick fix, but begin a loving process of asking questions, especially of yourself, and new paths of communication may open up for you. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
About the author
Dr. Steve Graham has been in private practice for over 12 years, and was a pastor and seminary professor for many years before that. Along with his psychological and theological background, he has also received several additional years of training in contemporary psychoanalysis. Dr. Graham specializes in marital therapy, long-term therapy, and issues of depression, anxiety, trauma, chronic pain, and ADHD. He currently resides and practices in Tampa, Florida.
To know more about Dr. Graham, visit his website www.drstevegraham.com.