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Communication Problems?

When I ask couples what I can help them with, the most common response is “communication problems.” In my mind, this term has become a catch-all expression for couples who aren’t really sure what is wrong or who haven’t yet been ready to face deeper issues. They don’t realize they are actually communicating through non-verbal body language, yelling, or even the silent treatment. Problems arise because, as individuals, they don’t recognize the message being sent to them or even the message they are sending to their significant other. After exploring their situation further, I often find that there is much more going on than simple communication problems.

Let’s break down the idea of “communication problems” to see what could really be lurking underneath:

  1. Uncomfortable emotions– Our primary emotions are often difficult to feel because they are uncomfortable (hurt, loneliness, jealousy, etc.). Because they are uncomfortable, we often cover them up with another emotion. Enter: Anger. Anger loves to disguise what you are really feeling. It gives us the illusion that we are dealing with the issue, when in fact, we are getting further and further away from it by trying to satisfy and quench our anger. When you find communication breaking down and yourself getting angry and lashing out at your spouse, ask yourself this question, “What am I really feeling?” This will help you dig deeper in order to recognize, feel, and cope with what’s really going on. Anger obviously leads to communication problems because it masks the real issue.
  2. Displacement– You have heard of Dad coming home after a bad day at work and kicking the dog in the driveway because he almost tripped over him. The dog did nothing to deserve it other than being alive, but still got the brunt of Dad’s frustration. Similarly, we often displace our difficulties onto our partner. Sometimes we don’t tell them what’s really bothering us and sometimes we do. But either way, communication problems arise because we are struggling with work, children, in-laws, money, self-esteem or other issues not related to our partner. I suggest that when you find yourself displacing issues on your partner, recognize that you are doing so and talk to your partner about what you’re really struggling with. You might find a helping hand waiting for you.
  3. Past Injuries– We carry past problems and emotional injuries with us through life. What happened to us last week, during the first week of marriage or even when we were a child can impact how we relate to our partner today. If our partner has hurt us in the past, we are less likely to feel emotionally (or even physically) safe. In our attempt to guard our emotions, we put up walls or distance ourselves, which increases communication problems. I suggest that when a past injury is lingering, address it with your partner. If you are unable to solve it, then seek professional help. When your leg is broken, you go to the doctor; when your relationship is broken, you go to a therapist. They are trained to help you through these difficult issues.
  4. Lack of communication skills– Sometimes we don’t communicate well because we simply don’t know how. Learning basic principles of communication will empower you to express yourself in a healthy manner. By going to school, we learn how to be doctors, teachers, or lawyers, but we don’t learn the basics of human interaction and communication. The learning process doesn’t just come naturally to everyone. Deliberate learning and application will help you become an effective communicator. When it comes to marital communication, John Gottman (The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work) and Susan Johnson (Hold Me Tight) have paved the way through research and practice. Read these books and practice with your partner. You will get better.

When communication with your partner becomes difficult, remember that the underlying problem may not simply be that one of you lacks communication skills. Think about what could be hiding beneath the growing anger or distance between you. As you search this out, you may discover deeper issues that you can discuss and deal with together or that, if necessary, you can receive help with from a therapist.

Man and woman in silhouette sitting on the edge of the sofa

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Written by Triston Morgan PHD, LMFT

Dr. Triston Morgan is a director and owner of the Center for Couples and Families with locations in American Fork, Provo, and Spanish Fork. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist and is originally from Oregon. He and his beautiful wife, Cristina, love to travel and see the world.

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