Communication Problems: The Cause of Relationship Angst?

Communication | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

Communication | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

Do you ever feel that you and your partner are speaking two different languages?  Do you feel that your partner doesn’t really understand what you are trying to tell him or her?  Do you feel that you have the same discussion again and again, without making any progress at all (if anything, it feels like you’re further apart than you initially were)?  Has it got to the point where it just feels easier to avoid certain types of discussions, even though you know they need to happen at some point?  Does it feel like communication problems are the root cause of much of your relationship dissatisfaction?  If any of this ring true, you are definitely not alone.

Without fail, every couple that comes through our door identifies one major issue in their relationship; communication problems.  They describe a never ending pattern of trying to have the same discussion again and again, never fully resolving it.  They end up frustrated, exasperated and feeling like they just spent the last 15 minutes trying to communicate with their partner in two different languages.  Every couple turns to me and says “We need to learn to communicate better.” However, are communication problems really the issue?

There is no doubt that there are communication skills that can help people communicate more effectively such as active listening, reflection, and not interrupting.  These skills are relatively simple in theory and most people are capable of using them.  When I work with couples, almost everyone is able to demonstrate these skills when interacting with me.  They are able to listen to me, take in information and provide me with information about their own experience.  A lack of communication skills is relatively infrequent.  However, when they try to communicate with their partner, all of those skills go right out the window.  How does it happen that two people, who have the basic skill set, go so off course with each other?

Often it’s not a lack of communication skills that is the problem, but rather the emotional intensity between partners that interferes with truly being able to listen to each other.  We enter relationships because we want to feel that there is that one person who understands us, will listen to us, support us and even when they don’t quite get us, will work really hard to at least try.  When we feel that our partner is not really listening or understanding us, this can trigger some intense emotional reactions.  We may feel sad that they don’t seem to care about us or our concerns.  We may feel anger that they are not agreeing with our perspectives.  We may feel attacked, and in response, go on the defensive.  All of these responses, while very understandable and normal, greatly impact our ability to communicate with our partners.  If we are feeling overwhelmed emotionally, it is very difficult to actually listen to someone else; it’s kind of like trying to have a calm, rational discussion while trying to flee a burning building.

Rather than attributing our relationship difficulties to a communication skills deficit, it is more likely that we are having a hard time truly connecting with our partners.  We want our partner to show us that they are truly listening and trying to see things from our perspectives and it is likely that this is what they want from us as well.  

How do we solve these "communications problems?"

1. When approaching your partner, make it your goal to understand their perspective.  S/he will be much more likely to try to see your point of view if they feel listened to.

2.  Really listen to what they are saying; stop planning what you're going to say once they are finally finished.  Just be in the moment with your partner.

3.  If you feel your emotions intensifying, let your partner know.  This can be a cue to take a step back, re-establish a positive connection with your partner, and then continue.

4.  Some ways to re-establish a positive connection can be to hold hands, use humour, recall a discussion that went well, or simply sitting with each other.  It may be useful to discuss ways to re-establish connection prior to more serious discussions.

5.  If things get too emotionally intense, try to put the brakes on the conversation.  Reassure your partner that you are not trying to avoid the conversation, but delaying it until you are able to truly listen.

When we feel that we are being listened to and understood, it is much easier to use the communication skills that we have.  It is when we are feeling emotionally intense, that things tend to get challenging.  Establishing that emotional connection can make all the difference in communication.