The Problem is Not Poor Communication

The problem is not communication.  There, I said it.  I want to put it on a sign outside of my office.  I want to post it in bold letters on my website.  Maybe even put it on my business card.  That’s how strongly I feel about it.  

Here is where you are right in blaming “poor communication” for your marital woes. You do suck at it.  Or he (she) does.  Screaming at your partner to unload the dirty dishes is not great communication.  But, you already knew that, you didn’t need me to tell you that.  Stomping out of the room and retreating to your room for the next 2 hours— also not great communication.  Again, this is not news to you.  You are likely not seeking the input of experienced marriage counselors to learn that you shouldn’t yell at your spouse or walk out on them either.  

If communication was the problem, there would be no way to explain why some of my clients struggle so much.  They are often exceptional communicators.  Often times, they excel in their professional lives due to their stellar communication skills.  They know how to close the sale, build the right relationships, negotiate deals, effectively communicate diagnoses and treatment plans, teach and consult in masterful ways, argue their case, coach or mentor with great passion, raise amazing kids, etc.  If the need to be a great communicator were a precursor to all successful marriages, my clients should be well-positioned.  

If communication was the problem, articulate, poised partners would likely never struggle in a relationship.  The reason they are struggling is not necessarily the way they communicate, but rather, what they are communicating about.  When you are fighting about the wrong thing, no level of communication skill will ever matter.  It would be like a wrestler in the ring taking down the referee instead of the competitor.  If you are fighting the wrong fight, it doesn’t matter how great of a fighter you are, you will never win.

If communication was the problem, there would be no way to explain why my clients transform their marriage without learning communication skills or taking advanced communication 101. They improve their marriage without learning “I statements,” active listening skills, or how to fight fair.  I actually have to do little to facilitate how they communicate; maybe a tweak here or there, just for the ease of the conversation.

In fact, I spend very little time with a couple trying to change HOW they communicate.  The crux of what I do is to change WHAT they are communicating about.  When we make this change, couples actually need very little help.  They can tackle these conversations amazingly well, because they are finally talking about the real fight, the real enemy and the real problem.  What I’ve noticed as I’ve sat with hundreds of couples, is the problem is not their skills or the lack thereof.  The problem is figuring out the real problem.  

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular wrong fights:

1) Fighting about chores

2) Fighting about work-life balance

3) Fighting about parenting differences

4) Fighting about money

5) Fighting about sex

Couples will spin round and round in these fights.  The reason they do is because it’s not about the laundry.  The dirty dishes.  The late work meeting.  The debate between who is too lenient or too strict in disciplining their defiant two-year old.  It’s not about the eternal fight of one wanting sex and the other being too tired.  These fights are normal and common and expected for two people with two separate minds, living life in their own unique ways.  The most healthy and in love couples fight about these things, too.  When a couple feels connected, these fights are meaningless.  They don’t rock the boat. They don’t define the relationship.  They don’t indicate doomsday for a marriage.

The reason these fights can spiral into marital despair for other couples, is that they don’t feel connected.  When couples don’t feel connected, these totally normal, mundane and regular fights pit two people against each other and spiral into WWIII.  These fights are a blip on a screen for a secure couple.  These fights are a complete tsunami for a disconnected couple.  

The Real Fight:

The real fight is the dynamic of the disconnection, or as Dr. Sue Johnson, the expert in marriage counseling (and my professional hero), calls the dance of disconnection.  It’s the moves between the two of you that occur in thousands of arguments about chores and parenting and money that leave you feeling disconnected and distressed.  And this dynamic always involves the moves of BOTH people.  

Let me put it this way.  There is a third party in your relationship.  It’s not you or your spouse. It’s the dynamic between the two of you.  And this dynamic can create security, safety and connection OR it can create distance, insecurity and disconnection. This dynamic consists of what you do as a reaction to something your spouse does.  And they react to something you do.  And this goes back and forth for minutes, days, months and at times, years.  If disconnection and distance are creeping into your marriage, often, this dynamic is the enemy.  Not your spouse.  

The Right Answer:

Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) says it best. In her extensive research, she has learned the “problem” is not poor communication, but rather emotional disconnection.  She has uncovered that the “answer” is not perfecting communication skills but rather, restoring the the emotional connection (Learn more about EFT and Dr. Sue Johnson here).  

So there you have it.  The research has spoken.  The experts have confirmed it.  We do not need to learn how to be communication gurus to sort out your spending habits, parenting tactics, the amount of time spent at home or work or who changed more dirty diapers that day.  What we need to do, is look at how the feelings of connection, security and comfort are breaking down between the two of you.  We need to learn how to restore the connection.  Which often, has absolutely nothing to do with how well you communicate your desire for your husband to load the dishwasher or his desire for you to have sex with him.  These fights can go on and on without threatening the relationship, if your connection is intact.  

The problem couples are solving, most of the time, is connection.  It is my experience as a marriage counselor, that the only true meaningful solutions to a couple’s other “problems” come AFTER they have solved the problem of connection.  The real fight is to understand this dynamic that leads to two people feeling disconnected and distressed. The right answer is to learn how to connect.  Then, two people usually have an amazing ability to find solutions to their “problems.”

What to do?

For now, just think about that.  Stew on that.  We will post many posts about ways to restore the connection.  Tips that we have seen work on hundreds of couples.  But for now, we want you to sit with the thought that your spouse is not the enemy when disagreements arise.  That your differences in parenting style is not the end of the world. That your poor communication is not based on faulty skills.   The real enemy is the distance you feel and the difficulty you both have in reconnecting after a disagreement. The difficulty you have in reaching for each other to reconnect in EFFECTIVE ways. These ways do not require the skills of a communication expert, they often require insight, awareness and courage.  Courage to take the risk of reaching out to your partner in vulnerable ways and asking for the connection you need to feel close again. If you are unsure of how to reach and reconnect with your partner, stay tuned. We will spend a lot of time addressing maintaining and restoring connection in our blog.  If you want to hear it straight from the guru herself, pick up or download a copy of Dr. Sue Johnson’s book “Hold me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love” Click here for Amazon link.  It goes in depth as to how to recognize and understand the dynamic that is disconnecting you from your partner.

ADD Version:

  • The problem is not the way you communicate, it’s what you communicate about.
  • Fighting is normal and expected.  When a couple feels connected, most fights are meaningless.
  • The real fight is the dynamic between you that is  creating disconnection.
  • The enemy is this dynamic, not your spouse.
  • The right answer is restoring the connection, not learning stellar communication skills.
  •  Couples can resolve most conflicts when they learn to connect first.

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