Marriage Counselling: Communication, how to say that difficult thing

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Marriage Counselling: Communication, how to say that difficult thing

Communication within a long term relationship is something that couples therapists address with every set of clients that they see.  How a couple communicates is a massive stumbling block for a lot of people. This is something that is true of not just couples, however.  It is also true in other aspects of our lives and reframing how we communicate with others can be massively influential in terms of all of our relationships.  

Communication is a piece where many people remain ‘stuck’ in old, outdated and maladaptive structures.  By this, I refer to systems that we established as children, which worked to a degree for us when we were young, but may not work so well for us as adults.  When we are children, or even when we observe the manner in which children are treated in the world currently, we can see that calls for attention come in many forms.  Those that are closest to us, as children, understand what we need from many verbal and non verbal cues. However, with the development of empathy (which tends to begin for most children at approximately 4 years old and takes a leap in terms of maturity at around 7 years old), the manner in which we communicate as children moves drastically as we begin to understand that the ‘other’ has needs that also need to be met, and that the meeting of their needs will impact directly on how our own needs get met.  

However, social skills require positive influence at this delicate point in development and if a child does not observe appropriate modelling behaviour of how to communicate well, the societal cycle of poor communication continues.  We have all had the situation where we meet someone who is unable to ask a question about us, the person to whom they are speaking. In fact, it is very feasible that we have been in a set of circumstances where we are the person that cannot ask anything about what the other person’s experience is.  

This most likely happens because we are scared.  When we are scared that we will not be heard, seen or met, our earliest responses are triggered.  When we were infants, this would likely have involved lying, screaming on the floor until someone noticed us (it’s an effective model, in fairness).  As adults, this tends to manifest as an over-prioritisation of our needs, in relation to the needs of the other. This can easily result in our inability to enquire about another, a symptom of our temporarily suspended capacity for empathy.  

When it comes to being in an intimate relationship, over a period of time, our capacity to primarily meet the needs of the other wans.  The first flush of love, with all its pheromones and heightened feelings, deludes us that we will always want the other to be our priority.  However, this is unsustainable. The self will always be the priority for each of us, which is a healthy manner of being in the world.

However, what happens when this change occurs is that this piece manifests as subtle changes in communication.  How many questions our partner asks of us isn’t something that we count, but is something that we hear and understand, even subconsciously.  How much our partner talks about themselves, rather than ask about us, is the point at which a change in communication will likely become a point of conflict.  

Styles of communication (demonstrative, cognitive or emotional for example) are also very important in terms of matching our communication style with that of our partner.  This is not to say that we both need to communicate in the same way. It means simply that we need to understand and accept how our partner communicates with us. If they are primarily focused on the facts of a situation, rather than on how they feel about it, they are unlikely to be as emotionally supportive of a situation as we need them to be.  However, if they are aware that the facts of a situation and the solutions to a crisis are not the styles of support that we need within an emotional difficulty, they can at least modify their communication accordingly. This is a piece that takes time and effort but is a skill that not only can be learned, but can make a huge difference to a relationship.  

Communication is much more than talking.  How we interact within our most intimate relationships is a window into the core of our emotional selves.  Treat it well and your partner and you will gain a level of intimacy that is not only worthwhile, but is transformative in terms of the quality of your relational life.  

By Lorraine Hackett