I’m a marriage counselor. Whenever I meet with a new couple, I start with an open-ended question that makes space for anything, like “What brings you in?” (I’m still waiting for a really interesting answer, like someone’s cake-sitting fetish or ferret hoarding.)
But that never happens. Instead, 99% of the time, the response is this:
“We can’t communicate.”
Every relationship in different, but “communication issues” are what couples usually identify as being their primary problem. And they’re right: If they could talk, and have a constructive conversation about whatever the issue is, they could successfully solve it together.
But when communication isn’t working, even “pass the salt” can turn into a door-slammer. I’m going to spill the beans, and let you in on the core obstacle to healthy communication:
Each person sincerely believing with all their heart and soul that their communication problems are their partner’s fault.
“It’s his TONE I can’t stand! It just makes me want to scream! If he could speak nicely to me, then I wouldn’t get so mad.”
“She is so over-reactive about everything, and always on my case. If she could just relax and lighten up a little, it would be easier to listen.”
So, here we are. Gridlock. Both partners sit, looking at me expectantly, waiting for me to agree with them. Of course, I do, because both of them are right: If the other person could only be more agreeable, pleasant, and loving their relationship would be transformed. I do mean that sincerely.
And, regrettably, though that is true, it has absolutely no bearing on whether their relationship will get better. In fact, buying into that idea will only make their communication problems worse.
Why? Because all relationships are systems, meaning that people behave the way they do because they are reacting to something. Like… You.
That’s a hard idea to accept, especially when you’ve been feeling like the innocent victim of your partner’s hostility or passive aggressive silence. You’re not alone. The cherished idea I need to eventually pry from the hands of every hopeful couple on my therapy couch is this one: “My partner needs to change.”
I need to replace it with the distasteful new idea that will save their relationship, which is “I need to change.”
As you can imagine, when I actually say that out loud it goes about as well as taking a chocolate bunny away from a toddler and attempting to replace it with a floret of broccoli. Shock and outrage frequently ensues.
But then they go home, and try it. And things change.
When you start investing all your energy into controlling yourself, and stop trying to control your partner, you’ll get a different response. When you decide to be more agreeable, pleasant, and loving, even if your partner is behaving badly, they will have a better reaction to you. And then it will be easier to be patient with them. And then they will be warmer and kinder with you. And all of a sudden talking to them will start to seem enjoyable again.
Systems are incredibly powerful, both in their ability to destroy your relationship entirely, or to lift you both up into an easy, effortless love. When you’re caught in a negative system, changing it can feel about as reasonable as wrestling a tornado. But you have more power than you know.
You can decide to catch the prickly ball your partner throws at you, set it aside, and respond with something constructive -- instead of reactively hurling it back. But it’s not easy. It requires taking responsibility for what is happening between you, instead of waiting for your partner to change so that you can feel better.
I know that’s a challenging idea. I’ve been married for over twenty years now, and I still struggle with the responsibility of communicating well even when my husband is being an ass. It’s so much more gratifying to react negatively to him, and then blame him for my behavior. But it never ends well.
Want better communication? Be the change you wish to see in your relationship.