Last month, I was asked to give a community talk about communication in relationships. To prepare for the community talk, I compiled some thoughts about communication and after the talk I decided that it would make for a good blog as well! So here, I have converted what was a 45-minute lecture and discussion into a readable (hopefully) blog.
Communication in relationships is important to talk about because it is such a common complaint that people bring when they are seeking couples counseling. In my time helping people, I have come to expect that communication will be a factor in every couple and family session I have. There are a few good reasons for this:
Communication is vague.
Poor communication, communication skills, or social skills, can be hard to define concepts. When you ask what is meant by such a complaint, most clients may offer some phrases or examples, but they are unable to say precisely how communication plays into their difficulties. This is because blaming the communication in your relationships is a way to take the problem away from an internal struggle and place it on something outside or safe. This is a safe way to describe uncertainty about where problems are coming from and a hopeless feeling about how to deal with them.
Communication is immersive.
When you are having a heated discussion with a close friend or significant other, you are involved emotionally in the exchange to a degree that prevents you from seeing the process of communication objectively. So instead of engaging directly in the conversation with the other, you separate by being wrapped up in your own feelings and your own emotions. You gradually begin to respond more directly by what you think the other person is saying than what they are actually saying. So your reactions may seem out of place, or unwarranted. You can usually tell based on the confusion or caution in your partner’s response. If you start to notice these sorts of responses, it is a sign that you may be in your head more than you should be.
Communication changes over time.
Think back to the early parts of your relationship, or even back to when you were a child and your parents were talking to you. At first, understanding requires more words and effort put into communication. After you become accustomed to the expectations and meaning behind your conversations, you may find that you develop a shorthand that allows you to communicate much more efficiently. How could efficiently communicating be a problem? The answer to this question is complex but can be very illuminating. As communication compresses, it depends more on inference (what you think is being said), and perception (what you think they are feeling). Most of the time this would not be a problem. Usually you are close enough to what you are supposed to be hearing to get the message, and it does not cause a problem. However, these misjudgments add up because communication is so immersive, and you tend to miss things when they are based off of perception.
As communication compresses, it depends more on inference (what you think is being said), and perception (what you think they are feeling).
Problems can happen sometimes when communication compresses too much. People depend too much on their inference, perception, and later, history of negative impressions left unresolved. When you depend so much on your inference and perception, you experience a fundamental shift in communication. No longer are you communicating with each other, you are each communicating by yourself. Often I hear from clients a question, “Why bother talking to each other when you know exactly how the conversation is going to go?” My question to them in response is, “Why bother standing in front of each other while you talk to yourselves?”
So how do you break this cycle?
Breaking the cycle can be extremely challenging. The first thing that helps with breaking these sorts of cycles is to slow down. Slowing down gives you a chance to pull out of the emotional immersion that happens during these cycles. Imagine if you were swimming in a dangerous current. To escape the current, the best way to start would be to find out which direction the shore is! Otherwise, you might start swimming off in a direction, running the risk of swimming away from safety. Communication is the same! If you find yourself to be drowning in the emotional turmoil, take a moment to gauge a way out. My recommendation would be to take a moment to decompress communication. Find out what your partner actually meant when they said the thing that upset you so much. Be mindful that their explanation could have a similar effect on you, but keep in mind that they are trying to connect with you too.
Just from my experience, I have seen many couples achieve a connection and closeness that had been previously absent from their relationship.
A tool I frequently teach is reflecting and validating. These simple statements can transform the way couples feel about their conversations. Just from my experience, I have seen many couples achieve a connection and closeness that had been previously absent from their relationship. Reflecting, explained simply, is a synthesis of the information received by the hearer from the sharer. So if the sharer is explaining about how difficult their day was, using many examples and demonstrating how troubled they feel about their day, the hearer could say, “Wow, it seems like you had a really hard day.” These reflections are occasionally met with relief, but often they are met with an increase in sharing. This happens in part, because the hearer is opening to the sharer, inviting them into the safe connection they have together. The next thing it is very important for a hearer to do is to validate. Validating, in effect, assures the sharer that they aren’t crazy for feeling the way they do. A size-fits-all validation statement that I recommend to people who aren’t sure where to start is a second part to the earlier reflection. Wow, it seems like you had a really hard day. If I had a day like that, I would be frustrated too. The second part of this sentence is critical, as it builds connection by implying a shared reaction to the stressors. When the sharer realizes that they are not only justified for feeling the way they do, but knowing you would feel the same way if you were in their position can shift the conversation from a tense and uncomfortable venting session to a loving and comforting connection.
What if you are the only one?
Feeling like you are the only one trying is a typical reaction to the beginning parts of changing your relationships. Several things are important to check on if you are feeling this way. The first thing to check on is whether your partner knows you are trying to work on your relationship. The second is to make sure that you explain how you are trying to make changes. The last way to do this is to consider the possibility that you are missing something. There is a chance that you are trying so hard to explain yourself fully and clearly, and it is keeping you from hearing your partner well. If this is the case, slow down, and reflect and validate your partner. See what changes it will make!
What if it is too hard?
A sticking point heard or left unspoken too often in therapy, the belief that these emotional situations are too intense, and too difficult to handle. In these instances, I offer three areas of insight. The first is assurance that connecting with your partner is hard, but it gets easier if you are brave. The second is that these problems were created over time and must be solved over time. The third is that when you have been involved in a long-lasting cycle, sometimes you need an outside perspective to help find the way to safety. Schedule with us today to begin your journey back to a safe and meaningful connection.