We Just Have Problems Communicating
Of all the reasons couples come to me for counseling the most common reason is because “we just have problems communicating”. In fact, I have heard this so often that when couples call me and setup an appointment “to help us learn to communicate better” I can’t help but chuckle to myself.
Is it Really a Communication Problem?
I chuckle because too many times these couples have come into my office and it’s not at all about communicating. They’re coming in because they argue and argue, hurting each others’ feelings and then end up mad at each other for days after that. And they think learning to communicate better will help them stop arguing, stop hurting each others’ feelings and then they won’t be mad at each other as much anymore.
In fact, in my experience most couples who state that they need help communicating do just fine communicating. For example, she has no problem expressing herself completely and honestly by telling him what a jerk he is for saying those mean things about her at that Christmas party four years ago.
And he has no problem telling her how he feels nagged by her every time he comes home and has a list of chores to do around the house. They bicker back and forth, letting it all out and openly communicate about these issues very well.
When couples complain about communication problems it usually means that there’s something deeper and more meaningful going wrong than just communicating and when they try to talk about those deeper things they end up hurting each other and arguing about it instead.
Learning to Express Feelings in a Healthy Way
The goal in therapy then usually becomes not how to communicate better but how to address your spouse’s feelings in ways that aren’t hurtful, and create connection and healing.
Science supports this as well. Research shows that couples who attend therapy and receive communication training do not significantly increase their marital satisfaction. They do, however, learn how to argue better. So what do you do if you and your spouse are “having problems communicating” if learning to communicate better doesn’t necessarily fix it?
Well, Here are four simple steps that may help:
1. Identify the emotion you feel during the argument. This is mostly necessary in order to do step 2. This is also important because it is necessary to fully identify and own the emotion you’re feeling so that you understand what kind of emotional and mental state you’re in as you discuss things.
2. Talk about the emotion you’re feeling, not the circumstance leading to the argument. After you’ve identified the emotion you’re feeling talk about that instead of the events leading up to the argument. For example, don’t talk about how thoughtless your partner was for not putting away the dishes last night. Talk about how you feel hurt that they didn’t put them away after you asked them.
3. Don’t get sidetracked talking about details. When one of you makes a statement such as “I feel hurt that you didn’t put the dishes away last night after I asked you to”, it’s natural for the other one to get defensive and say something like “You never told me to clean them up, you asked me if I had time to clean them up.
That’s not the same thing”. This is not talking about the emotions. Now you’re arguing about details like who said what, when, what they meant by it, etc. Stay focused on talking about each others’ emotions.
4. Make requests to your spouse about how they can fix it. Once you’re clear about your emotions, help your spouse by letting them know what they can do to fix things. It’s natural for them to feel foolish or even angry when you have to talk about tough things (especially if it’s about something they’ve done wrong).
Telling them what they’ve done wrong without telling them how to make it better just makes them (and you) mad. Giving them a suggestion of how they can make it better, helps bury the hatchet and get you both working on the same team again. For example, saying something like “It would help me feel better if you could do the dishes right now so I can finish what I’m doing.” Is offering a suggestion, and telling them how they can help fix things.
Go ahead, give it a try. Not every couple is perfect at first but after trying this for a while you may be surprised at all the new things you and your spouse can now “communicate” about.
About the Author:
Aaron Anderson is a therapist and owner of The Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver, Colorado. He graduated with his masters in Marriage and Family Therapy and has worked in private practice for three years. In addition to his private practice, Aaron also helps agencies within the community create family and marriage related programs. You can visit his website at www.TheMarriageAndFamilyClinic.com