Marriage Problems: How Communication Techniques Can Make Them Worse
If marriage causes brain damage, we need new communication skills.
Posted February 23, 2010
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 they seem to be based on the assumption that marriage causes brain damage. When couples describe the early part of their relationships, they invariably report that they communicated very well. (Not many newlyweds mouth the great marriage lament: "We just can't communicate!") The prevalence of communication tips in the media implies that something about marriage degrades the neurons that embed communication skills.
Apparently some married people lose the ability to communicate so completely that droves of therapists and self-help books insist that they must learn and constantly rehearse elaborate techniques to understand each other.
Communication Results from Connection but Not Vice Versa
Of course, problems in love relationships do not occur because people are too stupid to figure out common sense methods of communication or too brain-damaged by the experience of marriage to remember how they used to communicate. 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 by your partner; it's to manipulate him or her into doing 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."
Why We Fight and Shut Down
People do not fight and stonewall for lack of communication techniques. They fight and shut down because they feel the like their partners don't care or aren't interested in how they feel. 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 that the other is failing or defective.
Negative reactivity can be regulated into positive attunement only 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 negative 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, strategies, precision timing, or careful word choice. You were interested in 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.