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The Missing Piece in Intimate Communication

Learn and embrace these 7 concepts.

Source: XiXinXing/Shutterstock

The most common barrier to authentic relationship intimacy is ineffective communication. Despite all the information on this subject, many couples still struggle to truly understand what each partner is trying to express.

I see these frustrations every day in my work with couples. When they come into therapy, they have often attempted many tried and true communication techniques. They have mastered how to speak honestly, to make “I” statements, to use active listening techniques, and to clarify through examples. They have also practiced taking turns sharing without interruption and staying open to whatever their partners are saying, even when it may be hard to hear. Yet, in many ways, they continue to misunderstand each other, especially when they are distressed.

In my more than four decades practicing relationship therapy, I have spent many hours observing these interactions, and I've come to understand that there is a crucial missing piece that stops intimate partners from truly connecting. When I’ve helped them add it to their current capabilities, their communication improves dramatically.

Here is the missing piece: While trying to express their needs to each other, most relationship partners alternate the roles of speaker and listener. One shares feelings and thoughts as their partner pays attention and tries to understand what they are saying. Then they reverse roles. That accepted pattern of communicating may seem effective enough, but it leaves out what is crucially necessary for a couple to truly connect. To make that happen, there must be an added dimension that produces a simultaneously interconnected experience. While one partner is speaking to the other, he or she must intuit and internalize what the other partner might be experiencing at the same time. In other words, the typical alternating between “performer” and “audience” is replaced with two performers and two audiences, both in the hearts and minds of each other while they are interacting.

Most couples are a bit overwhelmed when I first introduce this concept. They have assumed that quality communication simply means that partners talk “at” each other and then listen “to” each other in alternate exchanges. The idea that they must fully experience themselves and their partner simultaneously seems daunting. Yet when couples master this capability, they come to a level of understanding and connection. Their ability to more deeply understand their mutual responses in real time results rapidly in a significantly more authentic relationship.

These seven concepts are at the core of the task:

1. Communication Is More Than Words

Words and phrases are approximately 10 percent of the communication between intimate partners. The other 90 percent consists of body language, facial expression, voice intonation, rhythm, and physical connection. As partners talk to each other, they must be in touch with all of those parts of the puzzle in themselves, while simultaneously experiencing them in the other. Both partners must understand and accept that while they interact, both concurrently experience feelings, hopes, fears, anticipations, needs, and counterarguments or defenses, without necessarily expressing them out loud. Otherwise, both the speaker and the listener may take in the words without understanding them in the context of these variables.

2. The History of the Relationship Matters

Most partners have had multiple intimate interactions prior to the one they are currently experiencing, along with all of the memories that result. Those past interactions, both negative and positive, emotionally “bleed” into any current ones. Subsequently, as each partner talks or listens, he or she will automatically experience the leftover thoughts and feelings from past interactions at the same time as they currently interact. Those internalized memories can dramatically influence each partner’s interpretation of what they are experiencing internally and towards their partners, both verbally and nonverbally. Given the rich history most intimate partners have together, it is remarkable to me how many partners do not seem conscious of how their independent memories continually affect any current interaction.

3. Mastery of Nonverbal Cues

To help couples see and hear more of what is happening in their sessions, I often videotape them without sound, and then let them observe the recording. More often than not, they are totally surprised at how much they have missed because of being so engrossed in expressing their own “stories.” From this more objective vantage point, they can rapidly see subtle behaviors, like eye rolling, body positions that show defensiveness, looking away, or rapid changes in facial expression. They can also observe how much they can overlook these nonverbal cues from the other side, and how that experience might have changed had they seen them.

4. The Blindness of Rehashing

Paying attention to self and other’s concurrent verbal and nonverbal cues is difficult enough; if couples try to do that during the rehashing of negative, repetitive, never-resolved past interactions, they will find it virtually impossible to separate them out from the present. It is simply too hard to undo entrenched, unproductive experiences while trying to openly listen in a new way.

Using the same phrases they always have, eliciting the same emotions, and challenging the other’s validity can immediately set off an emotional blindness that makes truly listening to their partner almost impossible. Old, never-resolved feelings will obliterate any hope of the current interactions becoming more effective.

It's sometimes helpful for partners to each write down words, phrases, reactions, and defenses that they have repeatedly used in the past, and then try to create new ways of expressing themselves in the present using the techniques we study together.

5. Simultaneous Attention to Short and Long-term Goals

In the heat of an emotional exchange, many partners cannot keep the past, present, and future in perspective. Emotions can run high in the midst of a current hard exchange, obliterating the memories of the past and blinding future consequences. When partners have not mastered paying attention to their simultaneous experiences, they can too easily sacrifice the future while trying desperately to gain an advantage in the present.

When intimate partners become aware of the positive potential of this kind of synchronous communication, they are more likely to enrich and deepen the current moment. The past and the future become less able to contaminate the present. As they pay exquisite attention to each other’s simultaneous and multiple modes of communication, they can keep future desires in mind, no matter what is going on in the present. They do not forget that the person in front of them is the partner they want to continue to be with in the future, and they act accordingly.

6. Paying Continuous Attention to Shifting Goals

When couples are involved in emotional interchanges, they often don’t realize that their thoughts, feelings, and goals might change markedly as their interaction progresses. What one or both partners may be searching for as the goal of their current exchange typically will change as they continue interacting. This is where both partner’s capabilities to observe and understand what is happening between them in each moment is crucial. As they simultaneously experience each other’s full emotional experience, they are ever-ready to recognize if either suddenly needs to change course.

It is important to note that each partner’s potentially changing desire for a specific outcome will not always be what the other wants at the same time. As changes occur, both partners are available to help each other shift to a new course.

7. Separating the Present Partner From Past Others

It is all too easy for couples to forget how much they mean to each other, especially if an interaction is difficult and emotionally charged. If people are not simultaneously staying in the present and continuously tuning into each other, they may respond to the other partner as if he or she were someone from the past. People often commit to new partners who, consciously or unconsciously, remind them of previous relationship partners or childhood caretakers, both positively and negatively. Yet, every new relationship has unique characteristics of its own. In the heat of battle, it is too easy to only pay attention to cues that bring back those memories.

I have often seen this: One partner will talk to the other as though he or she was a person from the past. The other partners will often remark that they don’t feel seen or heard and begin to fight for their own presence. That is more likely to happen when the partners are not in the same physical space. When they get nearer to one another, touch in some way, and look into each other’s eyes, it is rapidly apparent that they’ve lost touch with who they are actually with. That physical proximity allows them to refocus on their current partners and pick up the more realistic cues they have lost.

* * * * *

When couples master these skills, something unprecedented happens. It occurs when they realize that they already knew themselves and their partners in these ways at another time in their relationship — when they were first in love.

When I point that out, couples are in wonder that they could have forgotten how they were with each other at the beginning. Of course, they experienced each other’s uniqueness, paid attention to the future while they were in the present, watched for nonverbal behaviors, and opened their hearts to each other’s changing moods and desires. And they did all of that automatically, because that’s what new love requires to continue flourishing.

It's all too common that long-term partners so often leave those crucial skills behind. Perhaps committed partners take each other for granted, or just don’t feel the need to maintain that level of involvement. Maybe they erroneously believe that unresolved conflicts can no longer defeat them, or they become preoccupied with other interests, or they just get lazy.

As partners realize that they somehow once knew inside what they are now learning again, they not only become newly committed to their promises to each other; they don’t want to forget to love each other that way again. That awareness sets off an upward spiral of revitalization, excitement, curiosity, and devotion that many have not felt in a long time.

So often, people do know what creates a wonderful, long-lasting relationship, but allow life’s pressures and demands to support emotional amnesia. Many couples, given the opportunity to remember who they are at their best, readily re-embrace what they have unknowingly or unwittingly put aside.