Nearly every time I meet with a new couple, one or both of the partners will tell me they think that their main problem is “communication.” When I ask them to tell me more about what they mean, they will often talk about repeated and escalating conflicts, days of avoiding contact, in-house separation, lack of eye contact and physical touch, and constant critical vocal tones. And more. What I hear in that sad list of problems is a relationship that has suffered for awhile from emotional hurt and mental frustration, with communication being just the most obvious, surface-level issue they face.
As we begin to work on the multiple layers of pain they present, I often find that both have developed the mental habit of communicating very indirectly, all the time. Instead of asking their partner for what they need, or answering a question specifically, or commenting on something that is happening in the moment, they weave and dodge with their words. Now, we all know that to get along with other human beings, whether a friend, boss, neighbor or parent, we often side-step direct speech in favor of a softer, side-ways answer meant to smooth the emotional waters. “So, do you like this new (hideous) carpet we just laid down all throughout our house (for thousands of dollars…),” asks your mother-in-law? Oh, it’s terrific, we may say, simply to go along with the obvious drift of the conversation. What do we care if our spouse’s parents have new lime green shag carpeting under their feet? It’s not an important opinion, and we go along to get along.
While an important adult social skill, in the context of marriage, it can be applied too often. If we always avoid conflict, skirt an important issue, never give our critique or opinion, our partner never really knows what we think, and we are left alone with our hidden thoughts. Do this repeatedly, and with both partners, each will inevitably feel chronically misunderstood, unappreciated, hurt and angry. What’s left? Each partner secretly expects the partner to read their (true) mind, figure it out from their vocal tone, body language, hand gesture or facial expression what the truth is. And around and around we go, with no one feeling free or safe to say what they mean, express a real need or ask for help. No wonder the marriage feels lost and hopeless. I ask if it feels like the opposite of the early days of the relationship when partners were just getting to know one another, and their talk was free and personal and detailed. Invariably, both partners say Yes.
Getting a marriage back to a safer emotional position, in which both partners feel more able to express themselves as they truly are, ask for what they need from their partner and stop constantly mind reading and avoiding is long-term work and takes both partners working at it at the same time. This is where good couples therapy comes in. If what I have written here reminds you too much about your daily experience in marriage, I encourage you to call and set up an appointment. Come and see how a skilled counselor can help you untangle the habits of mind that keep you stuck, and get you back to a more direct, collaborative and warmer emotional style of talking with your spouse.