Ever wondered if you and your partner or spouse fight a lot because you just can't communicate?
Join the club. Almost every couple we work with tell us that they can't communicate. In fact, it wouldn't surprise us to learn that the number one reason people give for finding a couples or family therapist is because they lack communication. There's just one problem.
You can't avoid communication.
Paul Watzlawick, an early family therapy scholar, was famous for saying that one cannot not communicate. It's impossible. Think about it. Remember the last time you and your spouse got into a fight? He wouldn't listen or she was being defensive. Naturally, you got so upset about not feeling heard that you stormed out of the room. For the next two days, each of you gave each other the silent treatment.
And that silence spoke more loudly than any words could have. You were communicating. You just didn't know what you were saying. You didn't know that while you were staying quiet, she was in the other room filling the silent gap between you with all kinds of words. Words like, "He doesn't care," or, "If he loved me, he'd come over here and talk to me."
We know memory is a poor measure of reality because of how the brain works. We go back and change our memories all the time to suit our preferred beliefs, emotions or moods. We're only conscious of doing this a small fraction of the time. It's mostly outside of our awareness.
So when each of you looks back on this argument, you'll remember feelings and words and intentions the way you remember ghosts.
These ghost intentions and feelings may or may not be the result of what you actually communicated during the argument. More likely, they're a result of how you felt in its unspoken moments, or at least in the moments when you read between the line. If you've ever said things like, "I just felt that you were angry..." or "I didn't say anything becasue if I did, you'd just..."
No one can feel another person's emotion. That cannot physiologically happen. We may intuit what other people are feeling and have our own emotional response to that intuition, but intuition can be wrong. So the nasty secret about communication is that it's always happening - even if you're not saying anything. Because when you storm out of a room, you communicate loudly. When he scoffs at you, he communicates loudly. When you don't understand what she's saying, she's saying things she never intended because that's what you're hearing.
This is why communication is always happening.
Even when you don't think you're communicating, you are if your partner is hearing something from the way your body is postured, from the way you shut down an argument or from the way you say nothing. So keep in mind that you're always communicating. Even if you don't think so, you are. Even if, in fact, you've left the room intentionally to avoid saying something you'll regret, you're still communicating.
So if a lack of communication isn't the problem, then what is? The question that might serve you better is, "Are you communicating how you want to?"
Now that's a totally different question.
Practicing good communication is a lifelong practice. The overall goal is to be congruent. That is, to practice speaking and expressing what is the most authentic thought or feeling you have.
Why most authentic?
Because we're humans and we're complex. Sometimes, for example, we feel sad. And sometimes that sadness is rescued by anger. What's the more authentic feeling? Certainly the anger is functional. It protects us from feeling sad, but sadness is the most authentic feeling because it's what we felt most immediately and it's what makes us feel most vulnerable.
This is just one example of how things can get confusing. And it's why we practice healthy communication. We have to be clear with our spouses and partners that what they're seeing is actually sadness or fatigue. Not judgment or apathy. That's why this is a forever practice.
Want some healthy communication tips?
1. Slow down
Almost nothing gets solved in a hyperactive, super-aroused emotional state. Take a moment to stop and breathe when you feel emotionally triggered. Emotions work best when you're able to listen to them like data points, not use them like bludgeons. Besides, when emotions get really outside your control, it's not usually because of the original reason you were upset to begin with, but because you don't feel heard. This is why conflict escalates and also why people say they often forget what started the fight off anyway.
The most common reason people struggle to communicate is not because they're bad listeners. It's because they struggle to listen and manage an internal feeling state at the same time. Have you ever tried to listen to someone criticize you and remain calm at simultaneously? It's hard. Practice multitasking by inviting your partner to tell you some concerns they have about you at a time when you're already calm and not fighting. Start slow.
3. Be self-critical
We can promise you one thing. Almost every poor communication behavior (ex. not listening, being dismissive) has an equal and opposite reaction. If you're accusing your spouse of something without inviting their input on the concern, they're almost certainly going to act defensively. We sometimes make the mistake of forgetting that our perceptions are not objective reality simply because we see it, feel it or believe it. Also, if you've ever wondered why your partner is so defensive, we can almost guarantee you that she or he has wondered why you're so critical.
So practice compassion while you practice communicating. Because this is difficult work and we all need a little help along the way.
-Posted by Dr. Mathis Kennington LMFT-S