Communication is an act of transferring information from one place to another. This seemingly simple act is pivotal to our success in our relationships, our education, our workplace, and other important areas of our lives and throughout our lifetime. Therefore, it is safe to say that communication is one of the most important aspects of our everyday life. Some experts even believe that the significance of communication can be compared with the significance of breathing.
To appropriately express ourselves, it is extremely important to have good communication skills. Even though we know that it is extremely important to develop communication skills, most of us never formally learn how to effectively communicate. Our ability to communicate usually comes from experiences we have. Those experiences can be an effective teacher for sure. However, in many instances that experience can also fail.
From my work with couples, I noticed that many couples fail to communicate effectively. As a matter of fact, one of the most common reasons why romantic relationships end are communication difficulties between partners.
Couples & Communication
Communication difficulties may be detrimental to our romantic relationships; whether directly or indirectly. We may be able to recognize that we have communication difficulties, and act to address them right away. While sometimes it will lead to the end of our romantic relationships by increasing the likelihood of infidelity, weak emotional bonds, conflicts, lack of intimacy, etc. Therefore, it is necessary to question ourselves about the primary causes of the difficulties we face. Only addressing what is on the surface will not help us to solve the problem we have. Sometimes, addressing only surface problems can help our relationship temporary, but new surface problems will arise in future if the core problem was not addressed and dealt with.
How we communicate with our partner is a key indicator of the quality and stability of our relationship. If the quality of our communication with our partner is high, it is most likely that we will be highly satisfied with our relationship (Holman, 2001). In contrast, poor communication is more likely to have an adverse effect on the quality of our relationship, and it will probably set us and our partner on a course toward ending the relationship (Gottman & Levenson, 1992).
Interactions with our partner in a relationship, before formal marriage begins, influence later marital quality. Specifically, the quality of those interactions is one of the most significant factors related to marital distress (Jackson, 2009). It is even possible to predict distress in a marriage only by knowing the quality of interactions between partners during their relationship.
Therefore, it is important to recognize difficulties in communication with our partner as early as possible. Becoming aware that there is a problem is the first step. Then we are ready to determine which steps do we need to take in order to set our relationship on a road to success.
Signs of Communication Difficulties
There are many different signs that can help us determine if there are communication difficulties present in our relationship. However, I will mention only a few that I noticed in my work with couples.
Arguing over seemingly meaningless things: Seemingly meaningless everyday things, like whose turn is to take the trash or wash the dishes became an object of repeated arguments. Arguments are often and sometimes we even forget what triggered the argument.
Avoiding our partner: Sometimes in order to avoid arguments, we avoid our partner and make excuses not to be close to him or her. In the end, we can even start to ignore our partner, not giving him or her a chance to communicate with us. Avoiding or ignoring seems to be easier than getting in constant arguments that do not lead anywhere.
Lack of intimacy: There is no feeling of emotional and physical closeness to our partner. In the end, it is hard to be intimate, at any level of intimacy, with someone with who you cannot communicate with. Usually, this is connected to finding new individuals who will be able to give us desired level of intimacy. A new friend or even a new partner.
Criticism and contempt: It can seem that everything we do results in a negative comment or insult, so it is hard not to become resentful. Our relationship looks like a tennis match of name calling and bickering, where we lost track of who started it. It is starts to feel like we cannot do anything, to save our relationship and no one is taking any responsibility for it.
Not listening actively: We can try to explain to our partner repeatedly what the problem is, and he or she each time seems more oblivious. The partner seems not able to understand us, and vice-versa.
Lack of reflection and clarification: Sometimes we just presume that our partner understands everything we are saying, or vice-versa. This often results in misunderstandings we do not feel like our partner is listening what we are saying, and our partner reports the same problem.
There is no empathy: We do not feel any emotional support in our relationship, and our partner reports the same problem. It seems like there is no mutual awareness of the feelings and emotions we have.
It is important to note that, sometimes, the communication difficulties we face are more subtle and become more obvious in time. Sometimes, they are even concealed and recognizing that they do exist is a hard task. Because of that, professional help can be extremely beneficial.
How Can Therapy Help?
Sometimes we should work on our communication skills individually, and sometimes together with our partner in Couples Therapy.
Couples Therapy represents a safe place where couples can work on difficulties they face in their relationship. Generally, it can help us to gain insight and learn new skills that will improve our relationship.
There are many ways of how couples therapies work and many different mechanisms they use. I personally use integrative approach and combine different therapeutic orientation, to create an appropriate setting, one that will suit the couple who is seeing me the best. That is because, in my personal opinion, every relationship is different and therefore, it needs an approach that will be able to account for those differences.
Accordingly, the outcomes are diverse. However, in general, if we are motivated enough we will be able to do the following:
- Recognize existing difficulties, even those which are hidden.
- See difficulties in a different light and explore them from a new perspective.
- Learn new skills, that are essential for resolving existing and future difficulties.
- Improve communication that may have adversely affected the quality of our interactions.
- Have a neutral territory, to help us work through difficulties we face without any baggage that prevents us from moving on.
- Become aware of our partner's internal experience, by making avoided, emotion-based, private behaviors public.
- See our strengths and positive behaviors.
- Gain an insight in how to rebuild our relationship or why the relationship should end.
There are many positive outcomes that couples engaged in, couples therapy. One research even showed that Couples Therapy positively impacts 70% of couples receiving the treatment (Lebow, Chambers, Christensen, & Johnson, 2011).
Well, what about the other 30%? It is important to note that, among other factors, for couples therapy to be effective, both partners need to be motivated and work together. It is also important for couples to have realistic expectations because it takes more than a few sessions to shed light on the dynamics and to begin the process of change. Of course, there are other factors that influence the effectiveness of Couples Therapy, but I find the latter ones are the most important.
Communication difficulties, even though they are one of the most common reasons why romantic relationships fail, are solvable problems.
Relationship problems can be divided into just two categories: solvable and perpetual (Gottman,1999). Perpetual problems show up repeatedly. They probably will never disappear from our relationship because they come from fundamental differences in our personalities. Fortunately, we don't have to solve perpetual problems to have a good relationship. We just have to learn to handle them with humor and understanding, and not let them overwhelm the relationship. It is important to note that effective communication can also help us in dealing with perpetual problems.
Solvable problems, as their name implies, are solvable and we have power over them. We should become aware that they exist, so that we can start solving them. A trained professional can help us gain that awareness and also work with us in order to solve the problems we have. Also, a trained professional can give us tools that we alone can use in order to make our communication more effective, in all areas of our life. Therefore, it is important to talk to someone who can help.
Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1992). Marital Processes Predictive of Later Dissolution: Behavior, Physiology, and Health. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(2), 221-233.
Gottman, J. M. (1999) The seven principles for making a marriage work. New York:
Holman, T. B. (Ed.). (2001). Premarital prediction of marital quality or breakup: Research, theory, and practice. New York: Kluwer Academic.
Jackson, J. B. (2009). Premarital couple predictors of marital relationship quality and stability: A meta-analytic study. (Doctoral dissertation). Available from Proquest Dissertations and Theses database (UMI No. 3380523).
Lebow, J. L., Chambers, A.L., Christensen, A., & Johnson, S. M. (2011). Research on the Treatment of Couple Distress. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38(1), 145-148.