This Is What Actually Causes Communication Problems In Relationships

Written by Linda Carroll, M.S. LMFT
Linda Carroll is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her Masters degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981, specializing in couples and communication.

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When I see people for couples counseling, I usually begin by asking them what's going on. The most common response is, "We don't communicate," or "Our communication has broken down."

"Tell me more about what happens," I ask. Then they each speak articulately and intentionally, and what I see before me are two people who are communicating perfectly well. What they are actually talking about is how they communicate under stress. Most often the stress is because they have lost their connection and are feeling judged and not listened to by the person who matters most.

For years, I responded by teaching them some important communication skills, such as using "I" statements, managing their reactivity, working to reduce stress levels and defensiveness, and the importance of understanding what they are communicating nonverbally. While these are all essential skills, there is something even more important than how to speak to each other. Even when you have the best communication tools possible, the tools alone are not going to sustain the heart of your relationship.

Here are a few things to consider when you think the problem is poor communication:

1. Most arguments about a lack of communication are really about emotional disconnection.

We get so caught up in our lives that we put the relationship on hold to take care of the really "urgent things," like getting a report in at work, working out, or taking our kids to gymnastics. While these are not unimportant, keeping our connection with our partner needs to be first, and that is not done by talking as much as doing things together, such as taking a walk, making love, cooking a meal, and laughing about the day.

When people say they have trouble communicating, they are most often talking about how they discuss trouble. Think about this. If you are feeling emotionally disconnected from your partner, and they bring up a difficult issue, what is the most common way to react? Most of us pull away or get defensive because we are already feeling protective. On the other hand, when you are feeling close and important to your partner, when you have a sense that they know what's going on in your life, and when you can feel the warmth between you, and they want to talk about a difficult topic, aren't you more open to listening?

2. It's not about what you're arguing about.

Although most of us in relationships can list the "topics" that cause trouble, it is not the topics themselves but the ways in which we discuss them that causes disconnection. For example, take one couple I know, Chris and Aimee. Their usual tiffs go like this: They're both exhausted and overcommitted, and they haven't had time together for days. Chris is making dinner for friends, and Aimee comes home without the spinach for the salad, which she said she would bring.

"You forgot the spinach," Chris growls, his hand on his hip.

"Well, maybe if I hadn't spent half of the day doing errands for you, I might have remembered it," Amy fires back.

And Chris answers, "Look, you left me in charge of making dinner for our friends because you couldn't be bothered, and not only that, you seem to conveniently forget a lot of the things you say you will do."

How do you think this conversation will continue? Forgetting the spinach is a 1 on the Richter scale of trouble, but now Aimee and Chris are moving into a 5, 6, or 7, a danger zone of blame and anger, because of how they are talking about it. It is when you become entrenched in a cycle of blame and withdrawal that you stop being on the same team with love and respect and become adversaries.

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3. Look underneath what you're complaining about.

If you are making a complaint, start by thinking about what the wish is under the complaint. For example, let's say you realize that your partner doesn't hold your hand anymore when you go places, and this was one of the things you loved most about the relationship: that warm, physical touch. Come to think of it, you barely touch at all these days. You might begin with the complaint, which is, "You don't hold my hand anymore. In fact, you barely touch me." The chances are you will not get a warm, receptive response or increase your partner's wish to have more physical contact. In fact, they may move away from you even more.

What is the wish or desire under the complaint? It is that you miss their touch. Beginning with "I miss holding hands with you" will certainly get a better response than opening with a criticism.

4. It's not just about talking more.

Without genuine connection, talking about a stressful topic or a topic you disagree about can quickly break down communication between people who are already tired and irritable. Remember that communication does not always create connection. In fact, it can create alienation, hurt, and disconnection.

What brought us into the relationship to begin with were feelings of safety and value and being known for who we really are. I have never heard a couple say, "We find regular time for one another, our sex life is great, we know we come first for one another, and we have terrible communication."

So remember, the deepest communication doesn't have to do with words. It has to do with feeling deeply valued by another person, and you show that by making time to be together in little ways not necessarily involving words. When words are important, begin with finding a way to express yourself that shows that you value your partner rather than finding fault with them.

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