You Said What?

Posted on November 7th, 2019

As many couples do, one thing Jim and Joanne readily agree on is that they don’t communicate well. Difficulties with communication in relationships may come and go, but they don’t seem to go away for long. 

While we often talk about this as a communication problem, the actual difficulty couples have isn’t usually about being understood. As with Jim and Joanne, their problem is that they each don’t like what the other is saying. This is what leads to the contentious arguments or withdrawal into sulking or punitive silence, which is what people are usually referring to when they say they have a problem communicating.

These conflicts build as relationships evolve because people are different from each other, and not by only a little. We are each as unique as our fingerprints, with our own perceptions and ideas of what is important to us, including how to communicate and how we want to be listened to.

When relationships begin, these differing points of view are not that important. New couples delight in each other and can usually easily ride over differences. As the differences become more important, people often do not know how to address and reconcile them, so small unresolved differences accumulate and lead relationships to be mired in conflict.

This is what Jim and Joanne were referring to: they had come to a place where their history of disagreement repeatedly trumped any possible agreement. Over time, they had ceased to experience themselves as a love-driven collaborative and become at odds with each other. Pick a subject, and they could lay out their disagreement: what kind of food to buy, how to do the laundry, where to go for vacations. 

When he was most frustrated, Jim complained: “Why don’t you just agree with me sometime?”

Joanne’s offended response was, “I don’t work for you, mister.”

What couples like Jim and Joanne need to be able to resolve their disagreements begins with recapturing more of their original feeling for each other. This is the key to better communications for couples. Trying to work out differences without re-establishing this positive connection ends up either as an edgy competition or a stalemate. Only by re-establishing their original connectedness, can a couple begin to work more collaboratively.

What it takes for a couple like Jim and Joanne is a mutual willingness to put down their oppositional stance and—most importantly—to at least temporarily put aside their history. They need to start fresh, to discover not where they disagree but where they agree.

The areas of agreement may be very limited at first. The muscle of agreement needs to be exercised before it will become strong enough to take on their larger areas of disagreement.

For couples who build this experience of finding agreement when they talk, communication doesn’t lose all its challenges, but even the most difficult conversations offer the opportunity to jointly engage a problem, work out a resolution, and end up feeling closer.

Posted in Marriage and Couples

Please remember, this is a blog. It is not psychotherapy or treatment of any kind and is not a substitute for the individual treatment you can get from going to see a good therapist.