One of the major issues confronting so many couples is what is commonly referred to as communication problems. This can mean many things and may cover a wide variety of interactive difficulties between any two people in a relationship.
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One of the things I hear repeatedly from my patients is that controversial topics in the relationship are completely avoided on the assumption that to do so may be better than to “fight.” Often, and unfortunately, it seems that fighting may indeed have been the only other alternative in their relationship experiences. One self-proclaimed “relationship sufferer” complained that her intended discussions with her husband immediately turned into “attack and defend” exchanges. Each partner focused on leveling criticisms and then defending or justifying their positions to each other, thereby making their so-called communication a negative experience. This level of exchange is likely to produce two people who will be inclined to avoid talking about issues that arise between them, possibly leading to the erosion or deterioration of their relationship.
Another problem occurs when one or both partners in a relationship are prone to intense anger when they feel misunderstood, misperceived, or even just disagreed with, because they have a strong need to be “right” or have their view or idea accepted by the other. Among other damages, this type of interaction forces their attention to the anger itself and its various harmful consequences, including increased hurt, distance, and withdrawal, and away from the issue at hand, which then may never be discussed again, much less satisfactorily resolved.
For several of the above reasons, many couples wind up recycling the same arguments (as opposed to discussions) and, therefore, dread the next encounter when their partner wants or needs to talk about something. Some couples have told me that they have been having essentially the same argument for years with no movement whatsoever. In one instance, the topic of the multi-year dialogue was their poor communication and what to do about it!
Mike and Adrienne needed to deal with an important conflict about which they each had strong feelings and major differences. Their friends, Dave and Mara, were coming for dinner and Adrienne was unhappy to be hosting them due to Dave’s alcoholism and his verbally abusive treatment of his wife. Mike liked them both and was more tolerant and accepting of Dave’s behavior, though not at all approving. Before their friends’ arrival, Mike and Adrienne absented themselves for a while to talk in private and see whether they could settle things between them.
Later that day, Mike told me about the talk that he and Adrienne had had, which evidently was quite productive and enabled them to receive their guests with a different attitude and level of comfort. It seemed that Mike and Adrienne were able to carefully listen to each other’s ideas and feelings without having to determine whether the other “should” or “should not” feel that way.
They each accepted that the other person’s perspective, while different, was just as valid as their own. In addition, they were not attempting to determine who was right and who was wrong, so they managed to avoid what might have otherwise become a contentious battle. They seemed genuinely engaged in a collaborative effort to resolve their differences and enjoy a successful social experience with their friends as a result.
Mike said that after the talk, Adrienne hugged him and said, “I feel so much better. I’m really glad we had this talk.” What immediately occurred to me upon hearing Mike’s comment was that perhaps a primary and fundamental goal of couples whose communication problems are at the core of their troubled relationship should be the ability to have a conversation about emotionally charged issues and come away feeling closer, better, more intimate, and “really glad we had this talk.”