Nearly every couple you ask will agree that communication is a problem in their relationship.
By the time couples come to couples therapy most are still talking, sometimes quite a lot, but certainly not effectively enough.
Some have stopped talking altogether, or at least put the relationship issues out of the talking agenda.
They’ve just had enough of trying to ‘talk through’ their problems and not getting anywhere. Or they fear (more) talking will just make things worse.
So an important part of couples therapy is to learn and practice communication skills in order to start or re-establish compassionate, respectful, and above all, effective communication.
But are couples realistic about what good communication really is, and what it can and can’t do for them?
I have listed below common myths couples believe about communication:
Myth: Good Communication Is Always Calm, Never Emotional
Not really, despite the fact that many couples believe that strong emotions are a problem and the main reason why their conversations don’t work.
So they try to get rid of those feelings in order to have calm, productive conversations.
But this is not possible, and not even desirable.
It’s not realistic to expect that two people can have deep conversations about longstanding, emotionally loaded conflicts, which they may have been trying to resolve, unsuccessfully, for a long time, without triggering each other’s emotions!
The goal should not be to get rid of difficult feelings, but to build each partner’s emotional resilience so they can bear their own (and each other’s) emotions while they talk about difficult topics.
Although it takes time and effort, emotional regulation and emotional resilience are skills that can be learned and practiced.
Myth: Good Communication Always Leads To Good Feelings
If the communication is good, we should feel good afterwards, right? No, not necessarily.
For instance, one of you may have initiated a confronting conversation around some integrity issue. Although you may not feel good afterwards, you may still think that the communication was good for the relationship.
It’s also possible to feel good after a conversation that did not involve good communication. Imagine for instance a situation where one partner lies to the other in order to ‘reassure’ him or her (and we’re not talking about ‘white’ lies here).
Judging the value of your communication on the basis of how you feel immediately after each difficult conversation is not the best way to go about it.
Good communication is one that leads to a progressively clearer, deeper understanding – of yourself, your partner, and the problems between you.
That’s all. We don’t necessarily have to feel good afterwards.
Myth: Good Communication Should Lead To An Agreement
Ok, we don’t need to feel good after every conversation, but we do need to reach an agreement, right?
No, absolutely not. Unless we’re talking about a real ‘deal breaker’ here (such as a safety issue, or a crucial boundary violation), everything else may not require an agreement at all.
Although this is a very common misunderstanding among couples, communicating has nothing to do with agreeing or disagreeing.
Because communicating is not the same as problem solving!
Although good communication is the foundation for effective problem solving, not all communication must lead, or should even be concerned with, solving problems.
And most conversations which are, will move towards problem solving progressively.
With some complex issues, you may need many conversations to deepen your understanding before you can actually get into any meaningful or productive problem solving.
Once you’re there, yes, you may need to explore agreements, but even then ‘agreeing to disagree’ may be an option.
Good communication is more likely to happen when you slow down, take time to talk and listen well, without focusing too often, too much, or too early, on whether or not you agree.
Myth: Good Communication Can Solve All Our Problems
Many couples believe that if they communicated better all their problems would be solved.
But this is not true.
Every couple, or any intimate relationship for that matter, will have some ‘problems’ that are not solvable.
Dan Wile, a psychologist who created the ‘collaborative couple therapy’ approach, once said:
When choosing a long-term partner, you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty or fifty years. – Dan Wile
And John Gottman, a couples therapist and author renowned for his breakthrough research with thousands of couples, have coined the term ‘perpetual problem’ to explain the difference between problems that are solvable and problems that aren’t:
Perpetual problems are problems that center on either fundamental differences in your personalities, or fundamental differences in your lifestyle needs. All couples have perpetual problems. They are the problems that a couple will return to over and over and over again. – John Gottman
Gottman also says that what is a ‘perpetual’ problem for one couple, may be perfectly ‘solvable’ to another – and vice-versa.
Now, just because some problems are not solvable, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about them. What matters is the emotional tone and overall intent of the conversations.
Rather than trying to solve perpetual problems, try and see these conversations as an ongoing dialogue that can help you both to actively develop acceptance and resilience.
Myth: Good Communication Is All About Listening To Each Other
Another common belief around communication is that the only skill people need to learn in order to communicate better is listening.
So people go and learn active listening, reflective listening, all kinds of listening… but still things don’t improve.
Some therapists will rightly emphasise talking as well.
They may encourage you to use ‘I’ statements, address the behavior not the person, pick the right time and place, or choose the right tone and attitude – especially when raising a complaint, an upset, or a request for change.
So you start working on your talking as well, but still communication doesn’t improve much. You wonder what you’re doing wrong.
But there’s nothing wrong, there’s just a skill missing.
Good communication requires three key skills: good listening, good talking and, above all, good management of emotions.
You can learn all the theory in the world about communication, you can get really good at it, only to see it all go out the window the moment you get triggered by your partner in a difficult conversation.
Although this is common and understandable, almost predictable, you’ll need to learn how to handle triggers and manage your emotions before you can have more productive conversations.
Letting Go Of These Myths Will Help You Heal
So, these are some of the myths many couples I see for couples therapy initially believe about communication.
One of the first things I do when they come to see me is help them let go of these false beliefs, so we can get on with the therapy work.
Did you share any of these beliefs yourself? Which ones?
How do you feel now knowing that what you thought about communication is actually not true?
Do you think this knowledge may affect the way you communicate with your partner? If so, in what ways?
If you have a comment you’d like to share, feel free to send me a line. I’d love to hear from you.