Time and again couples enter relationship therapy (marriage counseling to some) complaining of the inability to communicate.  In most cases both spouses have been English speakers all of their lives. Spouses regularly demonstrate a fine grasp of language and communication skills.  Many who cite communication problems are highly educated professionals whose daily skilled use of language contributes to successful careers. So what is really happening that renders attempts at effective communication between intelligent people ineffective?

     If love is to stay full and satisfying, maintaining a love relationship is the name of the game.  The importance of maintenance is not unique to relationships; just like a new car…if it is not maintained it will soon seem old and run poorly.  The trick to successful maintenance is identifying problems and fixing them while they are still small. Doing so is not easy.  Partners must first identify a problem, talk about it, mutually agree that it is worthy of focus and negotiate an agreeable solution.  All those steps amount to a lot of communication.

     Repeatedly, couples who list communication as their major problem are specifically pointing to an inability to negotiate and solve thorny, repetitive problems. When getting into a reoccurring issue, and the issue does not become solved, it appears that communication is the problem. In actuality, it is the poor manner in which each partner is reacting to the other’s pain and hurt feelings that causes the issue to seem impossible.  The intensity and pain of the moment makes the challenge of problem solving very difficult.  Additionally, when emotional intensity is present, especially in both partners simultaneously, fear and defensiveness prevail, poor conditions for constructive dialogue.  Therefore openness, a state needed for understanding and connection is lacking, preventing communication from having any chance of solving the problem.

     Love relationships and marriages are highly emotional entities. Through the trials of relating emotions are provoked and over time become a powerful, often negative, force of influence. When negative emotions prevail, normal communication is not likely to be effective. If couples would routinely solve problems, less accumulated negative emotion would be available to be ignited, like many dead sticks on a dry forest floor; primed with plenty of fuel for a large fire.

     Situations in which communication seems ineffective has little to do with the skills of communicating, but instead are all about partners’ emotionally-based tendencies.  For instance, the impulsive tendency to interrupt or talk over the other prevents good communication but is not indicative of a lack of communication skills; it is more about a problem of impulsivity.  The habit of being closed to the partner by listening poorly expressed by stone-walling, anger and defensiveness with a peppering of disrespect and contempt.  Speaking at high volume indicates mounting frustration, anger and potentially rage.  Words which attack a partner’s character or make threats are more about an accumulation of anger, resentment, and an absence of impulsive control, boundaries and positive morals, but does not actually represent a lack of communication skills.

     That which is routinely labeled as a communication problem at the foundation is about pain-based emotions and lack of discipline in following firm rules of non-hurtfulness, compassion and mutual respect. If partners would establish such rules and use all available personal strength to stick with them…even when it gets tough, communication is likely to be effective. Other vital rules that may support successful negotiation and conflict resolution include slowing down the process of speaking and listening and taking turns talking while concluding each partner’s turn with confirmation that understanding has been achieved.  The talking is just the surface, but the emotions underneath are what really determines whether a couple seems to be able to communicate. Andrew Aaron, LICSW

Sign-up for exclusive content. Be the first to hear about updates from the Aaron Institute.