Many popular magazines and websites offer various bullet-lists on how to improve your marriage through better “communication.” The same venues regularly feature weight loss bullet-lists. You probably know the research findings about the latter – they range from unhelpful to damaging. Research would likely show similar effects for any communication techniques that can be expressed in bullet-lists.
It’s not that communication tips are inherently bad. The better ones are like the better diet tips: eat less, move more; speak respectfully, listen attentively. They’re unhelpful because people do not communicate primarily by words but by emotional states. Brain imaging shows that we make judgments about what a person is saying based on emotional tone - body language, facial expressions, eye contact, level of distractedness, tone of voice - before the part of the brain that interprets the meaning of words is active.
If you feel that something your partner does is “stupid,” describing the behavior in the kindest language will not hide your true feelings, although it may well make you seem disingenuous or manipulative. Your task is not to say what you want to say in a better way, it’s to compassionately understand your partner’s perspective more fully, which you will certainly fail to do while thinking of your communication technique. Change your emotional state and the words will follow, but it doesn't work the other way around.
Communication Results from Connection but Not Vice Versa
Problems in love relationships do not occur because people are too stupid to figure out common sense methods of communication like listen better and speak respectfully. In fact, it’s misleading to say that people in intimate relationships have communication problems at all, though it can feel that way to them in their frustration and sadness. It is more accurate to say that lovers in distressed and unhappy relationships have connection problems.
Communication in love relationships is a function of emotional connection. When people feel connected, they communicate fine, and when they feel disconnected they communicate poorly, regardless of their choice of words and communication techniques.
How Communication Techniques Make Things Worse
When people are emotionally disconnected, the use of communication techniques makes them feel manipulated, and not just because the most popular ones are patently unnatural, more suited for a therapist’s office than a living room. There is almost always a hidden agenda in the use of communication techniques. The goal is not merely to understand your partner or make yourself understood to your partner; it’s to get him or her to do what you want.
Many marital fights begin with one accusing the other of misusing the communication techniques they learned in therapy. “You’re purposely not doing it right,” or, “Anyone with common sense could get this,” or, “I’m validating you more than you’re validating me!” I’ve often heard survivors of communication therapy take great care to use “I-statements” when addressing a partner: “I feel blamed right now,” which is, of course, blaming the partner for blaming. These are not communication problems. The partners communicate exactly what they mean: “You are failing or defective.” I strongly suspect that this expectation of how communications “should be” explains the findings of Schilling and associates in 2003 and Baucom and associates in 2006, that the better many participants become at communication skills, the more likely they are to experience marital distress. That is bound to happen when the "proper" execution of communication techniques is the goal rather than connection.
Why We Fight and Shut Down
People do not fight and stonewall for lack of communication techniques. They fight and shut down to numb the pain of disconnection.
Connection is basically the attunement of emotional states. Though it doesn’t have to be positive (you can be attuned to your spouse at the funeral of a loved one), attunement cannot exist in a state of emotional reactivity, when a negative feeling in one causes chaos or shut down in the other. It is extremely difficult to regulate emotional reactivity with words, even when there is no hidden motivation to convey how the other is failing or defective. Merely attempting to translate the emotional experience into words runs a high risk of sounding artificial or, worse, manipulative or dishonest.
Positive attunement occurs through interest and caring, i.e., one has to be interested in and show sympathy for the other. Interest and caring, like all emotional states, are conveyed primarily by facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice, not by words or communication techniques.
Before You Try to Communicate
Don’t think of how to get your partner to do what you want or, if you prefer the euphemism, how to “communicate” with him/her. Rather, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you want to feel emotionally connected with your partner?
- How curious are you to learn his/her perspective?
- Do you care how he/she feels right now?
- What do you love and value about your partner?
Having answered those questions, decide whether your connection is more important than the topic of your communication. You must convey that you will love and value your partner whether she/he agrees with you or not. Anything short of this devalues the connection – it’s not as important as what you want to talk about, thereby guaranteeing emotional reactivity.
You Know How to Do It
Think of times when you felt emotionally connected to your partner. Communication was not a chore that required techniques, maneuvers, precision timing, or careful word choice. You were interested in talking to him or her. You put things awkwardly all the time, but it didn’t matter, because you cared. Emotional connection is a mental state that begins with a resolve to show compassion and love. Early in your relationship you chose to feel connected, just as, if you’re thinking about communication techniques now, you’re choosing to feel disconnected. Try this instead:
Forget about communication techniques and choose to feel connected right now. If you do, you’ll have a reasonable chance of your partner reciprocating. You will then communicate better. More importantly, you will move closer to recreating a love beyond words. You will actually experience intimacy rather than just talk about it.