Psychotherapy: Marital Counseling: Pre-marital Counseling: Communication

I have come to believe that we give more credence to good communication than is generally warranted. A prevalent expectation is: “if we could only communicate better, we could solve most of our problems”. Now, please understand, people who don’t communicate well do have more problems. This is because people who have difficulty communicating can’t negotiate for their needs effectively. However, if most of my clients (workplace consultations, marital couples and individuals) could resolve their problems through better communication, they would rationally deal with their issues and get on with their lives. Unfortunately, this is not the case. I have often seen instances where better communication actually caused the relationship to deteriorate. For instance, one couple came to see me regarding a long-standing conflict. Convinced that their problem was poor communication, the couple attempted to rescue their marriage by taking a workshop designed to improve their communication skills. The workshop was quite effective in allowing both parties to become more expressive of their feelings. Both partners managed to learn how to communicate their current level of anger, disdain, and disappointment with the relationship more articulately than ever. Both partners knew how to negotiate. However, the couple seemed stuck, headed for the divorce courts with “irreconcilable differences”. This was despite the fact that they could also communicate their love and caring for each other when they weren’t busy engaging in sarcasm and blame. Whenever they tried negotiation, the couple seemed trapped in a series of “violent agreements”, each episode becoming more toxic in their lack of respect for each other.

If you look at our conflicts with our spouses, many of our differences truly are irreconcilable. The list of issues that couples find “irreconcilable” is nearly endless: money, sex, cleaning, friendships, family alliances, religion, values, you name it. Inevitably, couples will have differing values or mutually exclusive desires.

Successful couples don’t necessarily “solve” their problems as much as they learn how to minimize the destructive aspects of irreconcilable conflicts and focus their attention on creating a different reality where the unsolvable problem is no longer so important. Couples will often find that the same “unsolvable differences” that appear to be currently destroying the relationship were present when they had first met and were madly in love. If these differences appeared at the beginning of the relationship when the couple was passionately in love, what changed? Typically, what has changed is the amount of respect and consideration that the couple pays each other. John Gottman has done a remarkable job of documenting how the level of respect and consideration can determine the success or destruction of a marriage[1]. While there may not be a solution for the couple’s “irreconcilable differences”, there might be a solution for making the marriage work. The cure here is for the couple to acknowledge each other’s differences and rebuild the couple’s behavior to a style that is mutually respectful and considerate of each other’s needs.

[1] Gottman and Silver, (1999). Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work. Crown Publishers.

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