Communication, in my humble opinion, is the backbone of a marriage. This is the foundation, along with love, of course, that supports every other aspect of a marriage, from emotional intimacy, to physical intimacy and to loving in a real and genuine way. This does not mean merely talking. As we all know, we can talk AT our spouses and not necessarily to our spouses. We need to really listen to what our spouses are telling us. As a therapist, I have seen time and time again that the bulk of marital issues find their genesis in communication breakdown. The solution to many marital issues is both complex and simple; it is learning the skill of communication.
We hear our spouse every day, but do we listen? What else is the focus of your attention? So many of us hear words coming out of our spouses’ mouths, but we are watching TV, we are creating a shopping list in our heads, or we are worrying about the children, the bills or our jobs. Sure, all of those other things are important, and they must be addressed at some point, but nothing, and I mean, nothing is more important at that moment than what your spouse is saying. Even if your spouse is talking about something mundane, you must give your spouse 100% of your attention. That may seem trivial. It may seem that it is no big deal if you were not paying full attention when your husband was telling you about the game last night, or your wife was telling you about the sale at the super market, but it is a big deal. Every chance to connect on an emotional level with our spouses is a big deal.
In this day and age, and in most households, both spouses must work. Two incomes are often needed to maintain a house with children; therefore, time is so very precious. There are so few opportunities to connect with our spouses. We may not always have major topics to discuss, but that does not mean we should not talk to each other! So many things often come before our communication with our spouses. We may have brought work home with us, which gets our attention. The children always seem to need our attention. We may just want to “veg” out in front of the TV after a long and hectic day; however, we MUST carve out some time in the day just for our spouses. It is so essential to do that so that we maintain our connection with them. The breakdown of communication is the beginning of an insurmountable rift that leads to resentment and then to the demise of the relationship.
If communication about trivial things is life or death to the marriage, how much more essential is communication about the things we each feel are important? Unfortunately, sometimes we neglect to communicate properly about those things; this happens for so many reasons. We may not communicate our needs, or, put another way, actually TALK to our spouses, because we, in our righteous indignation, may feel that our spouse SHOULD know what we need, or we think they SHOULD know what we feel. So, we do not communicate and then we are hurt, disappointed, or resentful that our spouse so insensitively neglected our needs. How unfair is that? Not only did we set our unknowing spouse up for failure, but we set ourselves up for pain. Why do we do that to ourselves? It is important to remember that our spouses are not mind readers. We cannot assume they know what we need or want. We need to find a way to express our needs in a way our spouses can receive them. “Mind reading” and “should” thinking are both forms of faulty thinking and faulty thinking needs to be challenged (Beck, 1995). According to Beck, faulty thinking or cognitive distortions are errors in the way we think about the world and they lead to negative emotions and/or inappropriate or dysfunctional behaviors, which can include poor communication skills.
We may also fail to communicate because we do not want to rock the proverbial boat. Those who do this are the avoiders. You know the type. Avoiders cannot stand conflict. They swallow their feelings and concerns for the sake of “keeping the peace”. They think they are doing this for the good of the marriage. In actuality, they cannot cope with the potential negative emotions that are elicited from expressing that which makes them unhappy; therefore, they rationalize and justify in their minds that just keeping these things to themselves is the noble or “right” thing to do. Unfortunately, this almost always backfires. They do not communicate their needs, thus, the resentment builds. The more they swallow to keep the peace, the more their needs are not met; this just compounds the resentment.
One of my clients, I will call him “Jack”, is a huge avoider. Time and time again, he brings the same complaints about his wife to our sessions. More often than not, when I ask him whether he expresses his feelings to his wife about whatever the issue is, his answer is almost always, “No, I just did not feel like dealing with her.” The problem here is that Jack feels that his wife does not listen to him, that she does not care about his needs and, as a result, he has grown resentful. Oh Jack, how can your wife address your feelings if you refuse to share them with her? Goldhor Lerner (1990) refers to this behavior as “emotional distancing”, which involves emotionally removing oneself from the relationship in which conflict and emotional reactivity are commonplace. To the avoiders reading this, conflict causes distress, true, but you can withstand it, I promise. Put it this way; you are distressed anyway. Isn’t resentment distressful? It is far better that you get the issues out on the table, regardless of what your spouse’s reaction will be, because at least then you would have a chance of resolving the issues.
Avoiders are often passive aggressive. They cannot outwardly express their anger, so it comes out in more subtle, less obvious ways, like the husband who “forgot” his wife’s birthday or the wife who “forgot” to put gas in her husband’s car after driving it all day; thus, as a result, the great divide begins. Resentments pile up, which eclipse any feelings of love and passion these people once had for their spouses. Not only is this a detriment to the marriage, but it is also dangerous to these passive aggressive avoiders. Resentment and anger turned inward can become clinical depression. When one spouse is clinically depressed, it most certainly creates a very difficult environment for the entire household. According to Allen (2003), the symptomatic spouse is viewed within the context of his or her relationships. In other words, we do not live in a vacuum and the people around us can absolutely impact our moods. Back to Jack. He is classically passive aggressive and admits that he shuts down and often neglects the tasks that his wife asks him to complete. He has severe anxiety, depression and pain issues. Aggression turned inward affects both the mind and body.
There are many reasons one can have clinical depression and certainly not being able to communicate with one’s spouse is not the sole cause; however, the lack of communication can certainly compound or exacerbate an already difficult situation. This person’s spouse also falls into the great divide as he or she watches his or her spouse becoming more and more distant. Not only are the avoider’s needs not being met, but neither are his or her spouse’s. As the avoider pulls away, under the guise of “keeping the peace”, he or she is also withholding his or her love, passion and attention. Do not forget that the more one is silent, the more one is vulnerable to resentment build-up. His or her spouse then feels emotionally neglected, which, in turn, causes resentment build-up within him or her. Again, this adds to the great divide.
On the other side of the coin, we have the explosive types. Included in this category are those who lack impulse control, those who have anger control difficulties, or those who have extreme emotional reactivity. This type of person lacks the coping skills to deal with anxiety or distress (Friesen, 2003). These are the yellers and screamers. These are the people who fly off the handle at the drop of a hat. Often, these are the types of people who say hurtful things, even if they did not mean what was said, because they react before they think. Who can listen to a screamer? Often, the one on the receiving end begins to block out the noise. The screamer is not taken seriously and he or she loses all credibility. After all, can you really take someone seriously who sounds like a screaming banshee monkey? Moreover, if the receiver is the victim of a barrage of hurtful comments designed specifically to cause pain or to elicit a reaction, something I refer to as “verbal stabbing”, then it is impossible for the screamer’s message to be received in any real way.
I have a client, whom I will call “Katey”, whose father was a screamer. She would relay story after story in which he would berate her mother in his ranting sessions, which chipped away at Katey’s respect for him. She shared that she learned very early in life how to “tune him out.” By the time she was a young adult, she felt almost no respect for him at all. Ironically, she herself is a screamer and her marriage is suffering because of it. She admits to being a “verbal stabber”. She always regrets the words that leave her lips the minute they do, but she has not yet learned to control her emotional reactivity. She desperately loves her husband, but she cuts him to the bone with her hurtful words. We are working on Katey learning to express her needs in a more appropriate manner. Feelings are not wrong, but how we express them can be, especially if the ways in which we express them cause those whom we love pain.
If you are reading this and these poor communication styles resonate with you, I suspect you are thinking that you are either not in love with your spouse any longer, you love your spouse, but you are no longer “in love” with him/her, or you simply believe that the passion is gone. You may even be entertaining the possibility of divorce or even an extramarital affair. Does that surprise you? I have seen it a thousand times. You have met someone, possibly a coworker or a friend of a friend, who seems to hang on your every word. The more you talk, the more you realize that you have “so much in common.” You then start to villainize your spouse, focusing on all of his or her faults. You say to yourself, “He/she does not listen to me the way so and so does” or “So and so doesn’t yell at me the way my spouse does.” The next thing you know, you are on that slippery “we’re just friends” slope, you justify and rationalize your actions and then, before you know it, you are in an affair. If you think communication breakdown causes pain, just imagine the pain that results from infidelity. That pain not only affects you and your spouse, but also your children. All of the pain that people suffer as a result of divorce and/or extramarital affairs can absolutely be avoided if the communication would be a priority.
Do you think that is an exaggeration? Well trust me, it is not. I could relay story upon story of both people whom I have treated and friends who describe the aforementioned scenario. By the time an affair has been exposed and/or divorce is very seriously considered, one or both spouses convinces him/herself that he/she no longer loves the other. I am here to tell you that may not be true. I believe with all of my heart, mind and soul that, if love is the foundation on which the relationship was built in the first place, then it is still there. It has simply been covered by piles and piles of resentment that was created by the great divide, which was the breakdown of communication. The good news is this. The rift can be closed. Communication skills can be learned, or re-learned. If both spouses have the desire to do the work to challenge faulty thinking and amend dysfunctional behavioral patterns, perhaps with the guidance of a trained professional, and if they can remember the love that brought them together in the first place, then no problem is insurmountable. In a nutshell, love can be restored, resurrected and renewed.
Allen, P.R. (2003). Depression: A Symptom of Cutoff in Relationship Process. In P
Titelman (Ed.) Emotional Cuttoff: Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives
(pp. 315-336). Blinghampton, NY: The Haworth Clinical Practice Press.
Beck, J.S. (1995), Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Friesen, P.J. (2003). Emotional Cutoff and the Brain. In P Titelman (Ed.) Emotional
Cutoff: Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives (pp.83- 107). Blinghampton,NY:TheHaworth Clinical Practice Press.
Goldhor Lerner, H.(1990). The Dance of Intimacy: A Woman’s Guide to Courageous Acts of
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