(This article is from my newsletter and is part of an ongoing series called The TEN PLAGUES ON MARRIAGE. If you would like to receive my newsletter,  please fill out the form on the page to the left called Newsletter Signup.)                    

So far, in my series on the 10 Plagues on Marriage, we have talked about ADHD in marriage, old wounds in a marriage, parenthood, money, and sexuality. But of all these issues--songs, if you will, that couples sing when they show up at my door--plague #6, communication, would make the top of the chart.  

A Failure to Communicate         

"Our communication is terrible! Can you help us with this?" Hands down, one of the most common complaints I hear about relationship issues is that communication has broken down. I would love to reply, "Why, of course. I'll have you both fixed up in a jiffy." But we know that this is not like having an oil change or a dental cleaning. It is at the soul of the very relationship itself. After all, if we cannot communicate, what do we have left?          

Most spouses seeking treatment use the word communicate: I think the choice of words is significant. They do not say, "We can't talk to each other" or "We don't seem to understand each other" because they realize, at least on some level, that talking and understanding are but subheadings belonging to this more comprehensive theme of communication. Positively speaking, effective communication requires talking, listening, understanding, "feeling" gotten or understood, making sure the other "feels" gotten or understood, validating, and empathizing. Negatively, effective communication requires NOT blaming, NOT being defensive, NOT retaliating, NOT shutting down, NOT stonewalling, NOT lying, NOT deflecting, NOT displacing anger onto your partner, NOT threatening your spouse, NOT changing the subject just because you feel uncomfortable, and so on. Communication is nothing less than intercourse--deeply spiritual and psychological intercourse. And when this type of intimacy falters, it shakes a couple to their core.         

Sadly, many couples whom I see have tried couple's therapy previously in order to make headway with their talking/listening/ understanding skills. They tell me about how they were instructed to use "Couples Dialogue" or the "Speaker/Listener Technique" in which one person presents his or her concerns and the other learns to reflect back to the speaker what he or she hears the other saying: "So what I heard you say was ..." The speaker would then say, "Yes, that's right" or "No, that's not quite it." The two would stay at it until the speaker feels the listener has it right.         

But if this technique is clear enough for couples to understand (and it is), why is it that many try it, become incredibly frustrated with it, refer to it with contempt, and are desperate for something more? To add to this, in our insurance/managed-care driven, health-care system, we are told that human problems can be fixed either with techniques or drugs. But it is not that the principles behind the speaker/listener technique are faulty; it is that a technique-driven approach to couple's therapy often fails because human beings are unique and complex, and because human issues cannot be resolved mechanically.             

Deeper Questions about Couple Communication          

Communication, then, is much less about technique than it is about character; less about skill development than personal growth. It is less about the mouth and ears and much more about the heart and soul.           

So, the questions are much larger than a simple communication issue that couples present: What will it take for us to feel emotionally intimate with each other? What will it take for us to risk openness, to welcome our spouse's thoughts and feelings and dreams and concerns with an open and eager heart? To protect our spouse's vulnerabilities without walking on eggshells? To find the energy to engage at a deeper level? To wade through the consequences of my own trauma enough that I am able to hear what my spouse means in this moment instead of simply assuming this interaction is like the painful one(s) of my past? These questions lead to even more fundamental questions: "Is it really worth all the effort to find this place of emotional harmony? Wouldn't I be just as well off if I scuttled this relationship and a) lived by myself so that I don't have to face these complexities and stressors, or b) started over with someone else 'easier' to engage?" It is a cost/benefit analysis many spouses run when they begin therapy: "In the end, will it really be worth it, or should I simply cut my losses now?" Deep down many suspect that it is one's spouse who is at fault for the communication breakdown: "Secretly, I want the therapist to cure or fix my spouse because my spouse is the problem. After all, my contribution to this matter is very small, requiring just a little tweaking, or no tweaking at all." 

When it is Not, in Fact, about Communication: Two Scenarios 

Sometimes the issue is not about communication at all: It is about betrayal or deceit. Your spouse would understand clearly that you had an affair with your co-worker, but you cannot figure out the "right words" to tell her or him. Your partner would clearly grasp the concept that you have been raiding your child's college fund for your own pursuits (gambling, shopping, etc.), but, what to say, what to say! These are not communications issues at their core. You have to face the consequences of your deeds. We as humans simply cannot have our cake and eat it too, despite our desperation to figure out a way to do so. And violence is not a communications issue as we are dealing with it here. Make no mistake, violence communicates, clearly: YOU WILL DO WHAT I SAY OR ELSE!  Sometimes, after a couple of sessions, I begin to realize the nature of the interchanges between spouses is not a communication issue, but a power issue, with violence used as enforcement. I hear, either in session or from reports of their exchanges outside of the session, how one spouse demeans the other. Often it is straightforward name calling, sometimes it is threats, and many times it is a subtle but cutting emotional abuse of the other. The statement I get from the violent spouse is, "Please make my partner change so that I won't have to resort to saying those sorts of things. I really am not comfortable having to resort to that type of tactic." It reminds me of the Incredible Hulk's regrettable threat: "You really don't want me to get mad. . .you wouldn't like me when I'm mad!" 

What Stops Communication Dead in its Track 

Before we tackle the subject of communication head-on, I believe it is important to see the number one barrier to communication: unwillingness. "I have decided NOT to employ empathy, NOT to place myself in my partner's shoes, NOT to try to make sense of things anymore." Often this decision is not a conscious one, but rather a defensive unwillingness: "I cannot tolerate the psychological pain I will suffer if I admit certain truths about myself; therefore, I will utilize time-tested self-protective mechanisms like projection (placing my own faults onto someone else), transference (I will not address the reality of my life as a child in my family because it is easier to see my parents' faults in you), repression (burial of my history in my unconscious), or splitting (everything is black or white [you are either good or bad, I am either good or bad] which is an elimination of complexity)." Of course, this is but an abbreviated list of the defensive maneuvers we use to deflect painful realities from our conscious awareness, but it is important to begin discovering how you deflect -- because we all do -- at least to some extent. In each of the mechanisms I have named above, you begin to see your spouse as less human, less good, less trustworthy in order to spare yourself the painful work of imagining what role(s) you may have played in co-constructing this painful marriage. In other words, if I can blame all or most of what is wrong in our marriage on you, then my view of myself will remain fairly intact: I will be the noble victim and you will be the savage abuser; I will be the sympathetic "done-unto" and you will be the cruel and hated "doer." 

Not all unwillingness comes from such an unconscious, self-protective place. Often, it may be a reactive unwillingness: "I'm so angry right now that I don't want to hear anything you have to say!" "After you hurt me like this, nothing you have to say will matter." Sometimes this reactive unwillingness is temporary, but sometimes it reshapes the entire narrative regarding the relationship: "I knew it! How could I be so stupid! There were signs and I didn't see them. NOW I do. I married a narcissist (or jerk or sociopath or. . .you fill in the blank)." Whether our unwillingness to hear our partner results from unconscious or conscious choices, or, most likely, some blend of both, we should realize that we are playing with dynamite here: If we are not careful, we may blow up our relationship. Arguably the world's premier researcher into marriage, Dr. John Gottman, refers to this permanent change of the view that one spouse may hold for the other as "the story-of-us switch" (2011, pp. 147ff). Here are but a few of Gottman's warnings gleaned from his research:         

Unless couples get help to change the fundamental ingredients of trust --  those ingredients that make them believe attributions they make about their partner's character and their history together -- their story-of-us will, unfortunately, write the future for them.  (pp. 174-175)         

Here trust or distrust gets carved in granite and works its powerful effect on eventual         relationship outcomes. People's malleable memories of the past get reworked to fit the present and to determine the future. Trust or distrust in an interaction has now worked its magic or black magic to produce altered thinking about our partner's true character and to recast the history of the relationship. Change now is too little, too late. (p. 175) 
And, finally,        

The story-of-us switch is very hard to change. A positive switch acts as a strong buffer against momentary irritability and emotional distance. A negative switch means that even if our partner's behavior were to suddenly change dramatically, it is likely to be viewed only as a temporary aberration -- the relationship is still seen as hell, and for some unfathomable reason the demon did something nice for a change. (p. 175) 
What kills communication deader than Raid kills roaches is this switch, this stance of unwillingness. Granted, sometimes, because of long-standing abuse or infidelity or other repeated betrayals, this stance is warranted. Often, however, we find ourselves unaware of just how deadly this unwillingness can be. Biblical writers used the phrase, "hardness of heart," to describe this position. You may find yourself having this "hardened heart" toward your spouse, or you may find your spouse's hardened heart an incredibly painful experience to bear; but, if you want more, or better, or different, or if you're looking for hope in your relationship, seek first to understand, then to be understood. 

Covey's Axiom and Rhetorical Communication Theory   

A chapter entitled "Principles of Empathic Communication" introduces the fifth of Stephen Covey'sThe 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (pp. 235-260), focusing on the task of communication: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." I have not found a simpler, more elegant recipe for effective communication than that. Notice that this is first and foremost an attitude of the heart of the listener: Seek first to understand  --  not to correct or defend or remind. It requires the listener to be eager and hungry to know the speaker, and it places primary responsibility on the listener, NOT on the speaker. In other words, speaking nakedly requires such a risk that we must not require the speaker to do it perfectly (though we will talk about ways a speaker can make it easier on the listener). It is up to the listener to clarify, empathize, and WANT to get it. Otherwise, just go read a book or watch TV -- that would be better for the marriage: Those activities may not improve closeness, but they will do less harm than a listener unwilling to WANT to hear.    

Prior to my life as a clinical psychologist, I spent several years at a seminary teaching, among other topics, homiletics, the study of preaching. In addition to the history of preaching across the centuries, homiletics is informed by a broader study of rhetoric, dating back centuries before Christ (along with contemporary applications of communication, including the use of today's electronic media). In addition to several texts on preaching per se, I required my seminary students to read theoretical works such as James McCroskey's An Introduction to Rhetorical Communication (first published in 1968 and most recently released in 2005, the 9th publication). McCroskey clearly details the ingredients for communication: Communication requires a source, a message, a channel, and a receiver (4th edition, pp. 7-16). When communication is effective, the message as intended is received. When communication breaks down, problems may occur at any or all points along the line: The source (the person wanting to say something) may have foggy thinking, the message itself could be garbled, the channel (how the message is delivered) might be filled with noise that distorts the message, and the receiver may be damaged or not set to the proper frequency (e.g., not wanting to accept the message). What I would like to do here is to integrate the best of rhetorical and interpersonal communication theory with Covey's axiom, and pertinent psychological and psychoanalytic clinical experience and theory, in order to offer what seems most helpful for couples struggling to talk with and understand each other. 

The Active Receiver/Listener 

Covey STARTS with the receiver, assuming that you, as listener, have a great responsibility as to whether the communication will be effective or not. Will you hear the speaker or will you not? Will you listen with an open heart? Will you refrain from skewing the intent of the speaker? Will you lay down your weapons? On several occasions, Jesus used the phrase, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Will you have ears to hear? It is quite common in couple's therapy for one spouse to accuse the other of not talking. Often, the less verbal spouse, when growing up, may never have been invited to share his or her internal feelings, thus making it challenging, in a marriage, to sprout these undeveloped skills. This can be quite frustrating to the spouse longing for an emotional connection, one who has been 'dancing' (if you will) since birth. The dancing spouse's comfort with these moves is evident; the non-dancing spouse's awkwardness is equally evident. Loving the non-dancing spouse well may mean taking it slowly, not prolonging the awkward experience, enjoying what he or she is able to give rather than being frustrated with the other's lack of stamina. Who knows? He or she may learn to love to dance, but most often it is not because of a coercive spouse.    

Oddly enough, one of the most important courses I took in my psychoanalytic training was entitled, "Hate, Envy, and Destructiveness in the Psychoanalytic Process." While we explored traditional understandings of those feelings and actions, we saw more subtle ways in which we frequently experience and respond to conflict, often without realizing that we have, in fact, been negotiating more or less successfully on behalf of our own needs. Dr. Malcolm Slavin (2000) explains how this interpersonal process of negotiating, via hormonal signals, begins in the womb between mother and unborn child:
What they are communicating about often concerns how much investment of key nutrients the mother will make in the fetus. Specifically, one question is often how much blood sugar will be delivered to the fetus across the placenta. ...Basically, the fetus typically wants somewhat more investment of calories than the mother wants (is optimal for her) to give. The fetus releases chemical signals to raise the mother's blood sugar. The mother releases insulin to lower it. Both parties act to induce an accommodation in the other, engaging in what is essentially a process of negotiation. ...In this negotiation, like most real developmental negotiations, there is enormous gain for both participants in a stabilized, mutually beneficial outcome: essentially an intersubjective compromise. Nevertheless, both parties stand to benefit additionally if they are able to bias the outcome, tilt it a bit, in her or his own individual direction. (pp. 446-447)
Imagine this unconscious tug-of-war going on between unborn child and mother -- without words, gestures, or sound! Slavin adds that sometimes this negotiation "gets out of hand," and the strength of the child's wishes meets up with a weakness in the mother's capacity to regulate insulin, resulting in gestational diabetes, a condition potentially destructive both to mother and child. It is possible to negotiate so vigorously for one's position that it is ultimately self-destructive and damaging to the very relationship itself.
Have it Your Way

Slavin sees the above as an example of an existential reality that operates in relationships. He calls it a "psychic undertow" in which "each attempts to pull the other toward his or her subjective world (the world of his or her self-interests), and each attempts to resist the pull, the undertow, in the opposite direction" (pp. 447-448).

Below is a typical exchange through this psychic-undertow lens:

Her:  "Honey, where would you like to eat?" (This opening salvo could have innumerable    intentions and meanings, such as, I know where I'd like to eat, but I want to seem generous and open to your opinion.)

Him:  "Oh, anywhere is fine with me." (Oh boy, I'm not getting caught up in this today. I, too, want to appear agreeable, but even more, I don't want to spend thirty minutes in back-and-forth discussion about which restaurant to choose which will only leave me upset, not eating at the place I wanted, and exhausted from the battle.)

Her:  "I was thinking about Chili's." (I love their appetizers and drinks, and he loves the baby back ribs. Plus, I have a coupon, and I'm worried about how much we've been spending lately. He doesn't seem to have any concept of staying within our dining-out budget. Besides, he owes me for his snoring so much and keeping me awake last night.)

Him:  "Hmm." (Not Chili's again! What's up with this Chili's obsession? Why can't we have more variety? Does she know the manager or somebody else there? Is there something going on I should know about?)

Her:  "Oh, would you rather go somewhere else?" (Here we go. Let the games begin. Mr. 'Anywhere Is Fine With Me' is really Mr. 'Over My Dead Body.')

Him:  "No, Chili's sounds fine." (I just don't have the energy for a skirmish today, and she's being a little too sweet. Something is definitely going on here and I need to get to the bottom of it...while I chow down on some ribs.)
If this sounds somewhat familiar -- substitute restaurants for your typical battlefront -- you are not alone. If you are not aware of such self-talk, perhaps the rich world of your internal self awaits discovery! The next time you have such an interchange on a topic that is usually "loaded," try to be aware of your thoughts and feelings; sometimes it is just a feeling in your stomach that something is going on for you internally. 
I have emphasized the importance of the receiver in communication, namely, that the receiver must WANT to listen non-defensively to the speaker. Now, in light of this psychic undertow, we begin to realize how truly challenging is this process of sending and receiving in an open manner: instinctively we may feel this tug. Even if this undertow is below the conscious level, it is there nonetheless, and it drives our communication. Left to our own instinct for survival, we will tend to influence the interaction so that it favors us. This psychic undertow, or internal pull to have it my way, impedes any listener from receiving a speaker's message without bias.

The Challenges of Being the Source
This is not to say, of course, that when communication goes awry it is always the receiver who is at fault. McCroskey tells us that "noise" or interference often occurs at each stage of the communication process. When you initiate communication, you are the source, and McCroskey explains that in rhetorical communication, "The source must accomplish three things: 1) conceive the idea to be communicated, 2) determine the intent toward the receiver, and 3) select the meaning which he or she hopes to stimulate in the receiver's mind" (p. 8). Sounds easy, right? After all, we do this perhaps hundreds of times each day ... or do we?
Ruth and Ralph's Story
Let's imagine that husband Ralph is feeling bored by the predictable hum-drum of his life and so wants to plan a getaway weekend. That is the idea he wants to communicate. He believes that wife Ruth, whom he loves and frankly misses because of the many demands on both of them, could use this break to revive herself as well, and it would give them an opportunity to reconnect. This is his intent. Ralph realizes, however, that he has often been unsuccessful in conveying to Ruth either his idea or the intent behind it, so he begins to think strategically. He decides to stir memories of other trips that she talks about and from which she has pictures on her desk at work. This is the meaning he is going for: a trip that they both need that will create memories and quality time for them as a couple. He begins, "Honey, I've been thinking about the long weekends we have had in the past, especially how much you enjoyed them."
Sometimes though, no matter how carefully we may have thought through our idea the receiver does not "hear" what we thought we communicated.
So it is with Ralph, who pauses after his opening statement, hoping for some affirmation from Ruth, such as, "Yea, our trip to Sanibel was absolutely wonderful," but there is only silence. He starts to wonder if he is in trouble here. "So, Babe, do you remember our trip to Sanibel? How relaxing it was?" Another pause. Ralph notices a scowl on Ruth's face. This truly confuses him. He knows that something has run amok. Now he notices that he is angry as well as confused. "What?!" he is thinking. "So you don't want to get away? You don't want to spend time together? Is that what this silent treatment is all about?" And ... we're off!
If Ruth can take a deep breath and find words to put to her feelings, she may be able to share with Ralph why she shut down so suddenly. In the past, as she recalls, Ralph has left all the planning details to her: finding a suitable place to stay, packing, and making arrangements for the kids and the dogs. By the time they got into the car, Ruth was exhausted. She has a job too, after all, and getting away sometimes only added to the pressure of her work. And, once they returned home, she knew that she would be the one who picked up the kids and dogs, unpacked, and did all the laundry. And, from Ruth's perspective, Ralph has never noticed. Truthfully, life for Ruth was far less complicated if they simply stayed home. The very mention of getting away was enough to evoke significant anxiety in Ruth.
To be fair to Ralph, he was unaware of how Ruth felt about the preparation and clean-up when it came to these getaways. He simply did not understand how often he did not appreciate realities from her point of view. What is more, HE DID NOT KNOW THAT HE DID NOT KNOW: It is not only that he has not noticed Ruth's emotional world, but more to the point, he has not explored his interior life including his motives, his defenses, his "triggers," and his avoidance. We as speakers are often unaware of our intentions toward the listener, and there might even be a variety of feelings and ideas we wish to exclude from the communication that somehow leak out. Hopefully, Ruth will explain to him how she experiences him and he will be willing and able to listen, to begin to understand himself more deeply. This is often times a tall order! In fact, self-exploration is a lifelong journey.
This is not to say that Ruth helped matters. She was an ineffective receiver: She did not want to hear what her husband was saying and quickly allowed her own feelings to shut down any productive negotiation. By giving her husband the silent treatment and dirty looks she placed unnecessary distance between them. 
This dance of "initiating conversation/shutting the other down" will continue for Ralph and Ruth until such time that each spouse dares to look deeper within, or until one of them tires of feeling wounded by the other and apathy and, possibly, contempt creeps into their relationship.
Intimacy the Goal

When a couple shows up at my door "singing" about communication issues, we sit down and I observe their "dance." Is there unwillingness, a negative story-of-us, or no self reflection? Whatever the issues, the answers are rarely simple and patience is required, for me as the therapist, as well as for the couple. But true intimacy is certainly worth effort!


Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gottman, J. M. (1999). The science of trust: Emotional attunement for couples. Three Rivers, 
New York: Random House.

McCroskey, J. C. (1968). An introduction to rhetorical communication (4th ed.). Englewood Cliffs,
NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Slavin, M. O. (2000). "Hate, self-interest, and good-enough relating: An evolutionary-adaptive 
perspective." Psychoanalytic Inquiry (20), 441-480.

Steven D. Graham, PhD, DMin 

Steven D. Graham, PhD, DMin