I’ve been doing this job since 1996 and if there is one thing that I’ve learned about couples it is that the vast majority of them (close to 98% in my estimate) believe that they suck at communicating.
And they do.
The problem, though, is that despite every conversation teetering towards oblivion… communication is the last thing they need to work on.
But if you think about it, anyone who has passed 7th grade English can formulate ideas and articulate them in a logical, easy to follow manner. Plus, I think it is safe to assume that there was a time within most couples’ relationship when they enjoyed talking to each other. They didn’t have arguments, or if they did, they worked things out. There was a time, in fact, when they communicated so well that they eventually looked at each other and agreed that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. Never in all my years of counseling distraught couples have I found anyone who said they came to a place in their courtship when they slid next to each other, held hands, and looking deeply into each other’s eyes, said, “You know, I hate you and you hate me. So, let’s get married.”
Communication was not a problem in the beginning. Love, connection, and intimacy were communicated prior to the wedding, so it stands to reason that the ability to communicate did not evaporate after the vows were cited.
So what happened?
In some situations, the couple did not date long enough to know their partner well and thereby confused infatuation for love. For instance, I once met a person who dated their spouse for only 24 hours prior to marrying and you could see the flames of their union from miles away. But a courtship conducted at Mach speed is not the only recipe for disaster. Sometimes, as Aesop once said, familiarity breeds contempt and couples who have been together for decades find they have nothing but loneliness to hang onto.
For so long our pop culture has taught us that if we are having relationship problems, it is because we cannot communicate effectively. To some degree this makes sense. We live in an information age. We can have the answer to any question we might pose if we only know the right questions or keywords to type. And if the answer is not forthcoming, previous generations have taught us that if we collect enough data, test our hypotheses, and brainstorm solutions, the truth will eventually reveal itself. It is only natural, then, for us to believe that if we have a problem in our marriage, it must be because have not talked enough or do not have enough information.
But this is both a naive and narrow way of thinking.
Couples that fail in their marriage most likely began a gradual practice of one or more of the following habits. Each one of these behaviors poisons a person’s perception of their spouse and creates a negative template for their relationship that makes it almost impossible to see each other in a positive, loving way.
We want to say the problem is communication because it is easier to fix one problem than many. The reality, though, is that you/your spouse may be …
People that have this problem will insist that they are not controlling. They typically say, “I just like things a certain way.” The problem is that the “certain way” is almost always their way. They frequently use words like “should,” “ought,” “must,” “need to,” and “have to.” And despite their protestations, they rarely practice the art of apology. They are kind and loving people, but they have strong opinions on everything from where you should park to how you ought to arrange your social life. As a friend, every spouse has the right to “call out” their partner at times. But when a person makes this more the rule than the exception, a pattern of behavior develops where one partner is parenting the other. This is rarely helpful, despite the good intentions. If you are hearing your spouse say things like “You’re treating me like a child,” “I’m not an idiot,” or “I know what I’m doing, thank you!”, then you may be creating contempt in your partner’s heart more than love.
This is the spirit of competitiveness/having to win/believing I can solve it by myself that infiltrates a lot of marriages. Because these people are so focused on winning or remaining resolute in their positions, they do not open themselves to others’ points of view or embrace a “we” mentality. To win an argument they intentionally place their partner in a losing position and often find it difficult to admit fault. Instead, they will say that there was a “misunderstanding.” Ironically, stubbornness is one of the vices that almost everyone is proud to have. There is an assumed strength in stubbornness, but the reality is that it is only masked arrogance and pride.
Anger can come in many shapes and sizes. Sure, it can be expressed in rages, temper tantrums, and incidents of abuse. But it can also include sarcasm, criticism, contempt, resentment, nagging, irritation, annoyance, passive opposition, conveniently forgetting, or blaming. Anger is so prevalent in our society, we sometimes fail to notice when it is being expressed. In my experience, most angry people fall into one of two categories. They are either thin-skinned individuals who are continually on the defensive or they are people trying to keep themselves/others from approaching the unresolved hurt(s) that haunt them. Typically speaking, angry people are “hiders.” They use their anger to build the walls around their heart and have difficulty entrusting someone else with the responsibility of keeping them emotionally safe.
4. Lack of Intimacy
This problem usually expresses itself in two ways: pulling away or being unloving. Those who pull away keep the details of their life to themself. They minimize the importance of “being one” with their spouse and feel little connection with their partner, outside of being a cog in the machine of marriage/family. Those who act unloving make their dissatisfaction with the marriage clear. Not only do they voice their unhappiness, they may also withhold sex, or use it as a weapon. Either way, both types refuse to make an intentional effort to move towards their spouse on a daily basis. Both wait for their partner to make the first move, and both are inherently mistrustful of their partner’s efforts at reconciliation. There is usually such a long-standing pattern of feeling disconnected they are unpracticed at trusting someone else with those things that make them the most vulnerable.
Respect is one of those funny things that means different things to different genders. When couples come in to see me and complain of feeling disrespected, it is usually the men asking for this accommodation. It is not unusual for their wives to express shock at this statement. They insist that they do respect their husband. At this point husbands counter with pointing out that their wives have been engaging in one of the above four behaviors, either in an aggressive or passive-aggressive manner. Or the husband describes a story that portrays the wife as a person who has unyielding expectations fueled by resentment of him. For years I was shocked at the disparity that sat in front of me. Why would men claim they are being disrespected and their wives would have no clue that this was the message they were sending? I think it is because men see respect/disrespect in daily interactions, while women see it mostly in behaviors that harm the infrastructure of a relationship (such as the following four behaviors). For women, if they are not doing one of these behaviors, then they are demonstrating respect to their man. To a man, this is only intellectual respect, not behavioral respect. Oddly enough, if a man does do one of the following four behaviors, he intellectually understands these are disrespectful, but he has an easier time assuaging his conscience by compartmentalizing and rationalizing them.
It is odd but in the 20 years I have been counseling I cannot remember a single adult woman coming in and telling me she has a problem with lying. But there have been plenty of men. This is not to say that women don’t lie. I’m sure they do. It’s just that men appear to struggle with this more. I’ll be honest and admit that I am unsure why this is, but my suspicion is that it is for two reasons: 1) men do not understand the difference between truthfulness and honesty and 2) whereas women struggle around exterior appearance, men struggle with how their interior is perceived.
Men will lie to make their character look good
Wife (on the phone): Honey, did you go to the store and get that gift for your mom?
Husband (pulling his keys out of his pocket and heading to the car): Sure did.
Lying can come from a variety of places but the most severe cases I’ve seen have come from feeling unaccepted or unimportant in childhood. If a man has a strong core belief that he is (and is viewed as) a person of integrity, responsibility, and competence, he doesn’t usually feel a need to lie. Instead, he can just admit that he forgot to get the gift but he is on his way now, knowing that this will not negatively impact how his wife views him, because this is the exception, not the rule.
7. Living parallel lives/being roommates
My dad was a commercial airline pilot for 30 years. A few years after I married he told me that if he was flying from Atlanta to L.A. and he was only one degree off-course, then after an hour of flight he would be 60 miles off-course. He didn’t realize it at the time, but he had just given me some of the best marital advice I would ever receive as a young man. What I heard him saying was that if I wanted to stay close to my wife, I could never put my marriage on cruise control. I was going to have to fly this plane manually and be intentional about where we were going. This meant no winging it. This meant leadership, i.e. continually looking at the instrument panel to see if we were drifting. This meant continually dating my wife. And it meant never losing the excitement or the mystery of who she is so that I may daily pursue her.
Too many couples become caught up in the daily routines, the running of kids around town, helping with homework, late night business phone calls, and maintaining an active social calendar, that they begin to forget to spend time with each other and nurture the relationship. Both partners need to intentionally move towards each other on a daily basis. There must be a set-aside time of every day that couples reserve for connection. For daily checking in with each other, seeing where they are emotionally at, and how they can effectively join them in the small world they inhabit.
This includes affairs, addictions, pornography, etc., and it is not specific to only one gender. Contrary to popular opinion, studies show that approximately 70% of men report cheating on their wives while 50-60% of women report cheating on their husbands. Neither gender is wholly absolved in this poisonous behavior. And addictions can strike either gender as well. The problem is that for most people holding deep secrets from their spouses, there seems to be a deep-seated belief that although secrets got them into the problems more secrets will get them out. This, of course, does not work. Ever.
Secrets are like acid to a relationship. They eat away at the foundations of trust and commitment in a relationship. If there are parts of yourself that you withhold from your spouse, the only way to heal is through confession and continuous transparency.
9. Lack of Unity
You hear the term “partners” a lot today. That is not a bad interpretation f what a marriage should be. But spouses do not always strive to be one in what they are doing. They differ in parenting. They differ in how to handle the opposite sex. They even disagree around how to appropriately manage social media. It is the uncommon couple who views the relationship as their #1 priority and strives to protect it at all costs. If we are going to be partners, we should be exactly that. Partners. Always working together to solve problems. Achieving common goals together. Finding separate but equal roles to play so that we, as a team, can have the goals we wanted at the beginning of the relationship.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet. This is the granddaddy to all of the above behaviors. Each one of the above things is centered around three things: me, myself, and I. This is not surprising, though. Most of our lives is spent around either A) someone taking care of us (when we are dependent children) or B) us taking care of ourselves (when we are independent young adults). It is a shock to most people’s systems when they get into a marriage and realize that the rules have now suddenly changed. Instead of focusing on themselves, they now must focus on their spouse. Selfishness is a hard habit to break, but if you want to know how, my next post will address this very issue.
Communication may not be your problem after all. Check the list above and see if you are engaging in one of more of these behaviors. It may not be easy, and in some cases you may literally need a professional’s help to change, but if these toxic behaviors can be altered, both partners can begin to have the relationship that they want with each other. Consequently, they will also discover that they will begin to communicate well again. Why? Because communication is an outgrowth of how we think and feel, not a prerequisite for it.