A Marriage Therapist Explains When Communication Is Overrated
Emily was agitated and distressed as she told me about her relationship with Sam, her partner of almost 13 years. He kept refusing to join her in seeing a therapist or a coach, or even to share a book with her about improving communication skills.
To Emily, it seemed that every couple she knew was working on how to be a more active listener or how to improve their empathy, perhaps by listening to podcasts giving relationship tips. Instead of joining her, though, Sam would just laugh at her requests and invite her to play tennis instead.
She went on to complain about Sam's insistence that his childhood experiences, including the way that a bully down the street had regularly teased and hit him, had something to do with his sensitivity to being teased now. She was also annoyed by his habit of looking away from the person he was talking to as he tried to formulate his thoughts. Because Emily believed that nonverbal communication was almost more important than verbal communication, she found this habit of avoiding eye contact discomfiting. Moreover, not only was he unreceptive to her feedback about this, he also downplayed it by observing that no one but Emily had ever complained about his manner of "getting his thoughts together."
She did acknowledge that Sam was a great partner in many ways. He was a fabulous lover, carefully making sure he was pleasing her as much as himself. He did more than his share of the housework and cooking. Although he was a dog person, he managed his irritation with her commitment to rescuing cats with good humor, even helping with the litter boxes and taking care to feed them when she was on one of her frequent business trips. He was often good at apologizing when he forgot something and even better at changing his behavior when he did things that tended to upset her. But he didn't want to talk about what was wrong in the relationship.
And communication is everything, right?
The Woodpecker Syndrome.
Emily was frustrated that something important to her was being neglected by her partner. This made sense to me. But I wondered whether Sam was automatically resisting the suggestion that he communicate better because of a feeling that the complaint (or the way it was being conveyed) implied that something was wrong with him. Emily admitted that when she tried to convince Sam to attend a class with her or to listen to a podcast with her, she usually began by pointing out what he was doing wrong and how doing it better would help their relationship. I suggested that she instead begin by talking about what he was doing right and how things could be even better if they got some new tools. This would be better than focusing so much on what was wrong that she could see little else.
Emily seemed to be caught in what therapists sometimes call the Woodpecker Syndrome: She kept pecking away at her point without noticing how the pecking pushed Sam away from her instead of drawing him closer. She lectured, complained, and criticized as if doing so were an inviting means of persuading Sam to do what she wanted. She hadn't given enough thought to what the effect of her approach might be.
Communication isn't everything.
Emily was also missing some of the most important aspects of relationship skills. These skills are not just about communication, whether verbal or nonverbal.
1. Some relationship skills are more important than communication.
Many relationship skills are essential, and some are even more essential than what we usually call communication. Generosity, forgiveness, and a great sense of humor are in the top three. Sam was great in all of these ways.
2. Feeling love and appreciation is necessary to good communication.
Feeling a loving connection with your partner and knowing that you are appreciated can be more important than practicing the forms of active listening. People can always imitate the mechanics of communication; they can go through the motions. But if their heart is not in the right place, the very tools of communication that we say are so important can also be used to manipulate, avoid, or even attack the other person.
3. Focusing solely on the negatives can push your partner away.
Sometimes we pay too much attention to what we see as our partner's failings while paying too little attention to all the ways they are a great partner, as may have been the case with Emily and Sam. The risk is that pretty soon, she will see only what's wrong with Sam and with their relationship without appreciating all the things that are right. If she focuses too much on criticizing Sam to try to convince him that he needs to change, she may end up only pushing him away.
4. Anything can be used as a weapon—even the tools of communication.
Many coaches and writers (me too) insist that communication is the key to a good relationship. But we must keep in mind that communication is not just a matter of words or appropriate gestures and other nonverbal means of expression. I know many people who make all the right "communication moves" in their relationships but who are not the kind of loving and supportive partners that Sam is. Sam shows that he cares by cooking, making love, and taking care of Emily's cats (even though he would rather never see another one). Generously giving time and attention can be an even more important form of communication than saying all the right words.
We need to feel connected with others, and we need to feel that they appreciate us. Being with a partner who does not maintain that connection and who does not express such appreciation over a long period of time makes us feel unsafe and eventually numbs our passion.
I am suggesting that you look at what is working in your relationship and learn how to respond positively to that. Is your partner already communicating with you in a way that you just don't see because you are looking so closely at what is wrong?
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Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981, specializing in couples and communication. She is the author of the highly acclaimed book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love, which has been translated into four languages, and she regularly teaches relationship courses based on the Love Cycles method at wellness spa Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Her next book, Love Skills, will be available in February 2020.