When people talk about having good relationships, at home or at work, they are referring to the flow of words and feelings and non-verbal gestures like smiles and hugs between them and others. Communication in relationships can be understood as data flow. Sharing emotional and informational data back and forth is what enables two people in a relationship to feel connected and to function as a team.
The idea that data bits have flow may seem strange. In fact, information about thoughts and feelings flows between a couple like water flows in a stream. Smooth laminar flow is good. Bumpy turbulence and blockages in the flow cause problems.
Here's examples of smooth flow, turbulence, and blockages.
Chris and Cindy had been married five years. The emotional turbulence in their conversations was getting worse and worse. It seemed that whatever they talked about, Chris was likely eventually to react negatively, feeling hurt by something Cindy had said. Cindy would get defensive. Chris then would become increasingly upset until he exploded. The result was that talking together yielded fights, not solutions. Instead of information flow, discussions yielded emotional geysers.
Turbulence in dialogue flow occurs when negative emotions become too highly aroused. High intensity negative feelings like anger, loud voices, and harsh words invite turbulence into a couple's attempts to talk together.
Blockages in the flow
Jake initially experienced great surges of attraction to Julia, whom he had met a month earlier. Julia was stunningly beautiful. At the same time, each time they talked, even chatting when they went to a lovey restaurant for a relaxed dinner, Jake felt frustrated. Whatever he said, Julia seemed to disagree.
When Jake put information on the table. Julia too often would remove it, pointing out what was wrong with it. "But...." "No, that's not right because..." Meeting blockage after blockage in the flow of their conversations, Jake felt increasingly unable to connect. As beautiful as Julia was, Jake found his interest in continuing to grow the relationship dwindling. He gradually withdrew, and eventually ended the relationship.
Blockages in information flow occur when someone listens for what's wrong with what they hear instead of listening learn, to recieve new input.
The costs of inability to sustain smooth information flow
The bottom line is that smooth information flow keeps a relationship humming lovingly.
Hesitant, excessively sparse, negative, blocked, hurtful or emotionally turbulent information flow by contrast causes couples to become frustrated with each other. They can't make decisions together. They can't clear up inadvertent upsets. They can't learn or grow together. Differences large and small, like what time to eat dinner or how to handle kid problems, yield unpleasant anger storms, canyons of distance, or both.
There is good news however.
Information flow is not like eye color. It is not a given. It's a funciton of skills. Both of the couples described above would be likely to fare just fine if they were to upgrade their information-flow skills.
The moral of the story
If the flow of communication in your relationship feels frustrating or turbulent, get help. There's oodles of self-help materials, counseling, and online communication-skills coaching out there for folks who want better communication flow and are willing to work at learning better how-to's. Taking a free quiz to assess what's working and what's not can be a good way to start..
A word of caution: Flow makes movement look deceptively easy.
The smoothly flowing movement of a great athlete, for instance, looks effortless. Like athletic performance, smooth communication flow can require lots of practice.
So get help, and expect that for your upgraded talking-together skills to prove helpful, you'll need to put on your most focused, serious-effort learning hat. Practice, practice, practice makes smooth conversation flow become "effortless."
The prize? Stronger and more loving relationship connections.
Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is a marriage skills website, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.