Communication in Relationships
We don’t communicate anymore!
This is, without doubt, the most common complaint heard by family and relationship counsellors.
Communication is not just important, it is essential, in the following aspects of relationships:
- companionship – sharing interests and concerns
- intimacy – being able to be close to each other, to comfort and be comforted, and to be open and honest with each other
- organising a shared home and a shared life and making decisions about issues such as money
- working together as parents in caring for children.
Communication is the key to good relating
Some people are better communicators than others. This does not mean that people who find communication difficult can manage without it. John and Louise were typical of a couple who found communication difficult.
John was a quiet man, who found it difficult to let anyone know what he was thinking or feeling. Louise was more open and direct. She let John know exactly what was wrong when she was upset. But within an hour or two she would have forgotten about her anger. John was different, he would feel hurt and rejected for days after a row with Louise.
They learnt to get along together. John often felt lonely. Louise felt frustrated that she could never sort out anything with John. Then a major crisis struck. Their third child was born severely handicapped.
John didn’t cry, and couldn’t let anyone know how upset he was, or let Louise know how deeply he felt for her in her grief and worry. His sadness came out as anger, the only feeling he felt safe with, anger with the hospital, Louise and anyone else who caught his attention.
Louise couldn’t understand John’s anger, and felt increasingly bitter that John didn’t seem to share her unhappiness. After a few months, the arguments and the bitterness got to a level where Louise couldn’t stand it any more. She left John.
John and Louise would have said “we don’t communicate anymore”, but they were, of course, communicating some fairly strong messages to each other. Not talking to someone does not mean you are not communicating. Silence is a form of communication. It will be interpreted as anger, or sulking, or perhaps even disinterest.
John and Louise would have had a much more rewarding relationship if they had been able to communicate more clearly. So when the crisis came, they would have been able to work together and support each other.
What is Communication?
Communication is one person giving information to another. The information may be about:
Facts – “I got a pay rise today”
Opinion – “I reckon overtime will be cut soon”
Feelings – “I’m really scared about being laid-off soon”
We are so used to communicating with others that we forget how complicated it can be. To communicate clearly with your partner you need to:
- Be clear about what you want to communicate.
- Convey your message so that it can be received and understood.
For the communication to be effective, your partner must:
- Hear the message accurately
- Understand what you mean.
At any of these stages, misunderstandings can occur. These can easily lead to hurt, anger or confusion. The good news is that with a little persistence, these misunderstandings can be easily corrected. When we communicate we also give a great deal of information without using words, by our body posture, by our tone of voice, and by the expression on our face.
These non-verbal means of communicating can tell the other person how we feel about them. If our feelings don’t fit with the words, it tends to be the non-verbal communication that gets heard and believed. Try saying “I love you” to your partner in a flat, bored tone of voice without looking at him or her, and see what reaction you get!
The message you send is not necessarily the one the other person will receive and respond to. There are two ways we can guard against this sort of distortion.
If you are sending a message:
Be aware of what you want to say. Especially be aware of what you are feeling about your partner or the situation.
Use “I” statements. That is, say what you want or feel, rather than make a statement about your partner. That way, your partner is more likely to listen to you without feeling attacked.
For example try saying “I’m disappointed that you don’t want to come to the cinema with me tonight”, instead of “Why don’t you want to come to the cinema tonight?”
Then, if you really want to know why, you can ask after you have made the “I” statement. If you feel any doubt or disagreement, or you find yourself reacting strongly to something your partner has said, then first check that you have heard the message accurately. Repeat back to your partner what you think they have said: “You mean …” This is called ‘active listening’.
Most of us find some experiences or topics difficult to talk about. Perhaps, it is something that reminds us of a painful experience, or something that makes us feel uncomfortable:
A woman whose parents always had loud and bitter arguments when she was a child finds it hard to talk to her husband about anything that might lead to a disagreement. She is afraid of any disagreement turning into the painful fights her parents had.
A man finds it hard to let his wife know when he is feeling vulnerable and, if he is honest with himself, when he wants to be comforted. He was always told as a child that men don’t cry or show weakness.
The things that cannot be talked about often hurt the most.
Communication can be improved. Open and clear communication can be learned. Start by asking these questions:
What things cause upsets between you and you partner? Are they because you are not listening to each other?
What things cause you disappointment and pain? What things don’t you talk about and what stops you talking about them?
How would you like your communication with your partner to be different?
If possible, ask your partner to think about these same questions. Then share notes, without criticising each other.
Next, try this experiment.
Decide on some ways in which you are going to communicate differently. See what effect this has on your partner, and change the way you communicate based on the response you get.
Remember – it takes two to communicate, and changing your part in the communication will lead to changes. You don’t have to wait for your partner to change.
If your partner is willing, you could both try the experiment. Don’t let on to each other what aspect of communication you are going to change, but after an agreed period (perhaps a week) sit down and compare notes.
You will find that as you become more aware of how you communicate, you will be able to take more control over what happens between you. Opening up new issues and areas of communication may not be easy at first, but as time passes you will find that it leads to a more fulfilling relationship.
If you find that there are aspects of communication in your relationship that you cannot improve by yourself, then consider having a talk with a relationship counsellor.
Counsellors are trained to recognise the patterns in a couple’s communication that are causing problems, and to help change those patterns.
Counselling is confidential. Usually it takes only a few meetings to make some worthwhile changes.
It makes sense to take action early and spend a little time talking to someone about your concerns instead of waiting until things get worse.