As a couple therapist, much of the time when couples come in to see me, they tell me they are having communication problems. “We don’t know how to talk to each other,” they say. Which confuses me, frankly, because here they are in my office, speaking to me in an articulate, thoughtful manner. They even help each other out as they explain their situation; when one falters, the other picks up the communication baton and runs with it. I watch as they explain in sync the troubles that plague them, in full detail, with examples and illustrations. They then tell me they have difficulty communicating with the person sitting next to them, the person with whom they just ran a full, coordinated, conversation marathon.
My therapist profile on our practice website states that I work with couples with communication issues. Here’s the dirty secret, though: poor communication is almost never the central problem in an intimate partnership. In my experience, miscommunication is much more often the symptom of relationship troubles rather than the cause. What couples experience is typically not a lapse in communication, but a gap in connection.
Of course, connection can feel elusive and its loss scary to contemplate, which is likely why couples feel more comfortable framing their problem as a communication issue. Unfortunately, good communication is simply not enough to sustain a relationship. With good communication, we logically understand the other person speaking to us—we can pass the ‘are you listening to me?’ test (albeit begrudgingly). But, with connection, we have a felt sense of our partner. This is the feeling within that says ‘this person is present with me and I am safe with them.’ This is more than simply echoing our partner’s words back to them; it is sharing in their emotional experience. Communication allows an intimate partnership to survive, but through connection, through feeling known and understood by our partner, the relationship can thrive. We should note that connection does not mean perfectly understanding your partner in every interaction, but rather feeling that you can reach towards your partner in an atmosphere of security and comfort.
So, how do we connect to our partners? As a couple therapist, there are three key areas in which I work with couples to improve their connection—trust and vulnerability, continuing to reach for your partner even when they have hurt or disappointed you, and, of course, doing stuff together.
Trust Allows for Vulnerability
The idea that we need to trust our partners in order to have a healthy, stable relationship is not novel. Trust, however, extends past believing that your partner will be faithful to you or that they will not run roughshod on the joint bank account. The type of trust that sustains relationships centers on the ability to be vulnerable with each other, to know that each of you will hold safe the hidden parts of yourselves that you would not readily expose to the world. With trust, you can be serious or silly, joyful or heart-heavy, and know that your partner will reside in that moment with you. This sharing of your vulnerable parts allows you to create a bond that designates your relationship as sacred and removed from what you share with others. Trust allows for vulnerability, extending your ability to fully and deeply connect as a couple.
Would You Hurt Me…on Purpose?
If your partner does something that hurts or disappoints you, take a moment to reflect on why they might have done what they did. Couples who stay connected give their partners the benefit of the doubt—they consider why their partner might have taken a particular action instead of jumping to their own conclusions. So often we are caught in our own hurt and anger surrounding a situation that we fail to reflect on our partner’s motivations. One of the questions I often ask couples is if they believe their partner would intentionally hurt them. The vast majority of time, their honest answer is no. I encourage couples to keep this in mind when conflicts arise. When you believe your partner is, at their core, on your side, but simply a flawed human being, it allows for both forgiveness and the opportunity to come back together. And, let’s be clear—giving your partner the benefit of the doubt means just that. It does not necessarily mean agreeing with your partner’s actions or choices. It means taking a step back to consider where they’re coming from. It means trying to find the path back to each other instead of allowing anger or confusion to leave you stranded in discord.
Do Stuff Together
One of the regular assignments I give to couples is to, you know, do stuff together. Often, couples have stopped doing activities they really enjoy (or even kind of like) because of conflict or kids or busy work schedules or [insert excuse here]. There is no other relationship—not with a friend or a close family member or even a pet—that we would expect to be sustained without jointly and actively engaging in pleasurable activities. So, why do we expect our intimate partnerships to survive weeks or even months without dedicated time together? When we participate in enjoyable or relaxing activities with our partner, not only can it be fun (heaven forbid!), but it also helps build what I call our goodwill bank—it gives us something to hold on to during the difficult times. We remember what we’re fighting for, which spurs us to continue on. These activities do not have to be exotic trips or fancy dinners; they can be as simple as taking thirty minutes before bed to sit on the porch together and look at the night sky. If you’re struggling to figure out how to find and spend time together, I highly recommend my colleague’s book, The Date Deck, for ideas. A relationship not fed with a steady diet of enjoyable (and, on occasion, new) interactions will ultimately starve.
While all the methods a couple can use to improve their connection cannot be covered in one blog post, those listed above typically provide a solid foundation to build on. In my experience, couples who work on staying connected find that the rest of their relationship (including good communication!) comes more easily, as they are better able to anticipate and understand each other needs. So, stop talking about communication, and learn how to connect.