Communication Skills May Not Be the Answer to Relationship Woes

Couple Looking Disgruntled
Christian Vierig / Getty Images

Co-Author: Linda Engelman, MFT

The chief complaint that marriage therapists hear from couples is "we have trouble communicating."  Many therapists teach "communication skills" to couples that often go out the window in the midst of a heated argument. Alternatively, sometimes neither spouse remembers to use what they’ve learned in couples therapy.  As strange as it might sound, communication skills are not necessarily what you need to help your marriage. Learning any "skill" is a behavioral intervention and a change to your cognitive (thought) process. It is something that you have to think about and practice on a regular basis for it to be effective. However, if you really want to experience a deep connection, safety, and bonding, then you need to learn something much more powerful than "thinking" or "practicing": the emotions and interactions shared between two people are what is at the heart of a healthy and long-lasting relationship.  Here are some commonly taught communication skills and why they  may be  problematic

1. "I" Statements

The "I" statement is something taught to clients by many a therapist. It is a way of turning this: "Look at the clock! Where have you been?" Into this: "I feel sad when you come home late." In theory, starting your sentences with "I" helps to tone down an otherwise critical accusation, allowing your partner to respond more empathically. In reality, the revised sentence still can be interpreted by your partner as criticism. Just because you start with the word "I", doesn't change the fact that you are unhappy with your partner, and an unhappy YOU causes panic in your partner. Besides that important fact, let's face it, how many people can use "I" statements in the face of hot emotions like fear, anxiety, and loneliness? This particular communication skill is very popular, well-intentioned, and may sometimes divert an argument…but it is not going to save a troubled relationship.

2. Active Listening

Here's an example of active listening, as it is taught to many couples:

Wife (Complainer): "You were downstairs watching football and having a great time, while I was up in bed, sick and miserable. You never even checked on me."

Husband (Listener): "So what I think I hear you saying is, when you were sick, I was just downstairs, doing my own thing. Do I have that right?"

This skill can help someone be validating and let his or her partner know, "I heard you." However, where do you go from there? This mirroring and reflecting of your partner is important, but it is most effective when combined with an understanding of underlying attachment needs.

For example, Partner A probably felt abandoned and scared. Partner B might do better by reaching out with a hand on his partner's knee, making eye contact, and softly reflecting, "It's that thing I keep doing again that hurts you. You must have felt that you don't matter to me - that I care more about the game than you?” The wife would then likely start to feel that the husband was more responsive, and would feel more emotionally engaged with her husband.  Not just that he just "heard" her but truly "felt" her needs. The wife's need for safety and security with her husband was understood. 

Responding to the underlying attachment need, instead of hearing just a critical voice and being defensive or just repeating back what you’ve heard, moves your connection to a new level that will hopefully prevent the undesirable behavior from recurring.

3. Scheduling a "Time to Talk" 

What happens for you when you think about blocking out 2 to 3 hours to "talk about us." Do you cringe? Do you hide under the pillow? Of course, you do! No one ever says "let's talk about us" when they want to spend 2 hours talking about how great of a partner you are! There's always bad news around the corner when someone says "we need to talk."

Couples do not need to schedule hours, only "moments." You do not need to hire babysitters or spend your whole evening processing disagreements. However, what is a "moment?"  A moment is admitting, "I know we had a rough morning. I don't know how to fix it right now, but I know that your sadness matters to me." A moment is calling to say "I miss you."  A moment is making eye contact and saying, "Are you doing okay?" A moment is everything from having a laugh together to sitting and crying together. A moment creates vulnerability, empathy, and connection because both people are very attuned to each other. How many moments did you consciously create today?​

4. Dealing With the Past

Suggesting that couples do not bring up the past is intended to help them stay in the present, and move toward the future. It is to help them circumvent awful rehashing of old arguments. A reasonable proposal, but probably the worst idea as it is fraught with problems.

The past is where many couples have experienced hurt and pain. Sometimes even deep wounds that go unforgiven. The past is where your partner may have needed you during a critical time and you were not there. The past is where your brain registered something such as "This is dangerous...I'm not one is there for me...I can't trust my partner...I'm all alone."

The past should absolutely be brought up if it is an ongoing source of pain. But also, you should spend time creating a new experience when talking about it. Lay down some "new neural pathways." The way to bury the past is to share it together in an intimate and vulnerable way with the person closest to you in your life. Tell your partner what you need to move on.  Allow your partner to really take it in and show how hurt he/she feels when hearing about your pain. When you have truly accomplished that, the past finally does become the past. This is not easy, nor is it a quick single therapy session fix, but it is a process well worth your time when you consider the payoff in the end — a lifelong intimate partnership, filled with connected moments.

Many of these “communication skills” are a good start, but they fall short of what is necessary to create a stable and loving relationship.  Somewhere in your relationship, the two of you scared the hell out of each other and were not there for one another in key moments. It's not that you lost your ability to communicate. Rather, you lost your ability to be emotionally attuned to one another. Sometimes these old wounds and other negative patterns of interaction keep coming up in your relationship, and require a professional to help you work through them. A skilled couple’s therapist with an attachment based or emotionally-focused orientation can best help you when newly learned communication skills are not enough. 

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