Communication is the flow of speech, that is, of information sharing. When people talk with each other, information flows between them just like traffic flows on a highway or water flows in a stream.
Smooth laminar flow is good. It signals mutual respect at work, and love at home. Blocks in the flow and bumpy turbulence cause problems. Blocks and turbulence signal non-cooperative interactions.
Here's some examples.
Breaks in the flow
Tim and Betsy couldn't seem to get comfortable in their new marriage Each time Tim would get going on a project, Betsy would come in, take a look over his shoulder, and then point out the problems with what he was doing. The picture he'd hung on the wall was too high. The soup he made was too spicey. One step forward, two steps back, seemed to be the rule there. Tim felt a growing sense of dread. Would the new marriage work out?
Turbulence in the flow.
Cindymhad been married five years. The bumpiness she felt whens he and her husband Chris talked was getting worse and worse. It seemed that whatever they talked about, Chris was likely eventually to react negatively, often getting increasingly upset until he exploded. If Cindy tried to exit to prevent the escalation, Chris's emotional arousal worsened, with his emotions geysering up. "You never want to talk!" he angrily shouted.
Blockages and bumpiness. Jake felt great surges of attraction to Julia, whom he had met just a month earlier. Julia was stunningly beautiful. At the same time, he felt a distinct sense of unease. Was it because when they talked their blockages in listening felt frustrating? Whatever he said, Julia seemed to disagree. When Jake put information on the table. Julia would remove it, pointing out what was wrong with it. "But...."
Sometimes Julie would just flatly disagree. "No, that's not right because..."
The worst for Jake though was when Jake shared a good faith feeling , like "I loved the movie we went to last night," and Julia responded with sarcastic eye-rolling. "Sure you did, with so many beautiful women in lead roles."
When partners reject information instead of listening to learn, conversation can't flow smoothly. IN addition, negating what someone says communicates "I don't respect you."
Communication flow in speech patterns predicts relationship happiness or distess.
What's your vote on the likelihood that Tim and Betsy's new marriage will turn out fine? That Chris and Cindy's marriage will survive? That Jake and Julia will succeed in building a mutually gratifying relationship?
All three of these couples look quite iffy to me if they keep doing more of the same. The good news though is that they are likely to fare just fine if they upgrade their skills for communication in relationships.
Breaks in the flow of information as people talk and listen to each other may occur if one person says something that sounds critical, controlling or otherwise threatening to the other. Tim's wife Betsy was a master of critical and controlling commentary.
Turbulence in dialogue flow occurs when negative emotions become too highly aroused. Like a stream rushing over underlying rocks, the flow of information gets bumpy as emotions get too intense from underlying subconscious boulders. Cindy's difficulties staying in the calm zone will continue to make the couple's attempts to talk together challenging until she gets help that enables her to stay comfortably in the calm zone.
Blockages in the flow of smooth information-sharing, that is, of cooperative dialogue, occur if there are listening glitches that make the dialogue feel oppositional instead of cooperative. Julia keeps dismissing, judging and negating what Jake says instead of listening to understand and digest his perspectivesThe result is that this couple's attempts to talk together result in increasing distance instead of ever-closer feelings of mutual understanding.
The bottom line is that without smooth information flow couples become frustrated each time they speak with each other. They can't make decisions together. They can't clear up inadvertent upsets. They can't learn or grow together. They cease even to have fun together any time fun involves talking. Serious danger signs!
There is good news however.
As I point out in my article on the three levels of effective couple therapy, more effective communication in relationships (the How To level), clear understanding of how the negative habits developed (the How Come level) and removal of subconscious landmines and undertows (the Deepest level), can enable couples with flow problems to emerge with a vastly more gratifying relationship.
Flow makes movement look easy. But just like the smoothly flowing movement of a great athlete that looks so effortless, flow in challenging relationships takes learning and lots of practice.
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.