Michael and Gwen enter the counselor’s office and nervously take their seats. Michael fidgets and stares at the floor while Gwen sits upright, looks toward the therapist and utters the words that marriage counselors hear so frequently, they can almost say them in unison, “Doctor, we’re not like most of the couples you see… we don’t have any really serious problems; he doesn’t drink or beat me or chase other women—nothing like that. Our problem is that we just don’t communicate.”
“We just don’t communicate.” The cry is frequent and the assumptions are clear: Communication means a better marriage; more conversation means more connection; increased interaction means increased intimacy. It all sounds logical enough—or does it?
Brace for fallout
In the past, I might have rushed in with a glut of techniques to help a couple like Michael and Gwen accomplish their stated goal of better communication. But over the years I’ve learned that working to improve marital communication is a lot like exploratory surgery: The risk of what might be exposed is fraught with peril. Couples need to brace for the potential fallout that better communication may bring before they recklessly plunge ahead with the scalpel.
Good communication involves both partners being aware of their own thoughts and feelings and expressing them in an open, clear way. When a person communicates effectively, there is congruence between their inner experience and their outward expression. However, even an increase in direct and consistent communication doesn’t insure that a relationship will improve.
Let’s take television’s Cleaver family, for example. If Ward started to be more open with June, maybe he would finally tell her that he doesn’t like her award-winning meatloaf or share the fact that he’s still upset about her quitting her job last year. He might even confess that he just lost half of their savings by making a bad investment. If June risked better communication, she might reveal her dissatisfaction with their sex life, complain about Ward’s low income or disclose the fact that his inebriated brother made a pass at her last Thanksgiving.
Partners conspire to restrict and filter their interactions because they sense the danger involved in expressing themselves more openly. Once this pact of limited communication is broken, the lid of Pandora’s box can blast open.