The number one reason couples come to therapy is because of “communication issues.” Why do I put this in quotes?
Because when couples speak about communication issues, it’s not that they can’t talk to one another — some couples do a great job of making time to sit down and communicate. Nor is it about their attempt to understand one another — some couples can paraphrase back exactly what their partners think and feel about a certain topic.
What couples really mean when they say we can’t “communicate” is that my partner sees things differently than I do (of which I don’t understand and have very little influence).
When couples communicate, there is a lot more than just words being spoken. Non-verbal language such as tone of voice and facial expression communicate all kinds of things to your partner. In addition, your partner organizes his or her experience of you in certain ways.
For example, when your partner hears you say the words “Can you wash the dishes tonight?” the tone of voice that you use may bring up feelings that make him or her feel controlled and smothered rather than making a simple request.
Our minds work in a way that has to filter words through previous experience so that the meaning of those words can be placed in a category. Some previous experience may bring up feelings of inadequacy, of not being good enough, of being controlled and manipulated, or of being abandoned and rejected.
This may not be the communicator’s intention at all, but this is precisely why couples find themselves stuck over the same topic — not because they can’t communicate, but because their subjective meanings of what is being communicated get tied-in with their previous experiences, leading to gridlock, rather than compromise.
When this occurs between couples it’s very important that they try to empathize with one another over the deeper meanings of the communication. Some of these meanings may not even be apparent to the partner, but through exploration they can be understood.
Couples therapy can help illuminate these hidden meanings in “communication” and bring a couple from impasse to resolution.
- Tom Philp, LPC, NCC