Article IV. Thirteen Reasons Why Spouses Fail to Communicate Effectively
by Reuben E. Gross, PhD, ABP, ABPP, FAACP, LMFT
Summary: Getting your message across to another person is the essence of communication. In a couple relationship, each person must play two roles: he must be eager to express himself honestly and diplomatically, and he must be warmly receptive to the communications of his partner. I present thirteen potential communication problems which I elaborate with examples drawn from my practice in marriage and couple counseling. Names and identifying facts have been changed to protect confidentiality and privacy.
Please note: Neither men nor women can claim an Emmy for communication. In order to be gender fair, I will alternate between "he" and "she" with the understanding that all of my points are relevant to both sexes.
"All the world is on the tip of the tongue" --Talmud, Brachot
Poor Communication is a Leading Factor in Relationship Disharmony
In close to forty years of fielding initial calls for marriage counseling appointments, a very frequent reason people give to explain their need for professional help is that they and their partner are not communicating well with each other.
Communication Problems Affect Us All
To a greater or lesser degree, communication problems affect virtually all couples. There are a number of reasons why the communication process is constrained and the message doesn't get delivered. Let's consider some of them.
Thirteen Reasons Why Spouses Fail to Communicate One Partner (or both)
Let Us Consider and Elaborate Each of These 13 Reasons:
Reason 1. One of the Partners Doesn't Have a Personal Need to:
(a) Share Experiences or Feelings,
(b) Discuss the Relationship, or
(c) Doesn't Understand Importance of Verbally Expressing to Partner Feelings of Love, Appreciation, or Praise
1 (a) One of the Partners Doesn't Have a Personal Need to Share Daily Experiences or Feelings
In this situation, the person doesn't "open up," or share his feelings or experiences with his partner. When a person fails to share with his partner his daily experiences with friends, family, or interactions with others at work, he subverts one of the main goals of teaming up in the first place. One of the reasons people bond with others is to avoid loneliness, and to bridge the existential separateness that begins with birth and from which we can never totally escape. If either spouse does not share his day or inner experiences with his mate, the other person will soon be thinking along these lines: "Who is this person that I married?" "I feel so alone in this relationship" or "This is not like having a spouse; this is like having a roommate."
1 (b) Doesn't Have a Personal Need to Discuss The Relationship
Sometimes it is the male, and sometimes it is the female who has a minimal need to discuss the intricacies of the relationship. In the course of my counseling sessions with thousands of couples, I have found that it is generally, but not always, the man who has a lesser need to discuss his feelings about his partner or his concerns about the relationship. Virtually all professionals in the field of Marriage and Family Therapy have found this phenomenon to be true and it is a major issue in many marriages. Even after many years of marriage many men do not discuss personal issues with their partner because it's not in their nature or need to talk about emotions or feelings. Many men don't readily initiate a discussion about their daily successes and failures, much less their long term hopes, dreams and fantasies. Unfortunately for their wives, these husbands do not understand that although they don't have a strong need for this type of communication, their wives do. This difference between men and women is a major cause of one of the battles between the sexes.
Writing about their research on problem-solving among unhappily married couples, Laura Sullivan, M.A. and Donald Baucom, Ph.D. state: "Several studies suggest that females tend to engage in more relationship processing than males do." (Journal of Marital and Family Therapy (January 2005, Vol. 31, Number 1, p.31). Among other studies, they quote R. Burnett whose research concluded that: "Women cared for monitoring and evaluating intrinsic relationship events and experiences more than men did" (Accounting for Relationships, 1987, p. 89). Paraphrasing Burnett, they continue: "Men, in contrast, were less interested, thoughtful, and communicative about relationships. They had more difficulty explaining relationships, and they were less likely to enjoy analyzing personal relationships than women were."
In a similar vein, the authors quote Acitelli who found that "wives were more relationship aware," i.e. tended to talk more about their marital relationships than their husbands did ("Gender Differences in Relationship Awareness and Marital Satisfaction among Young Married Couples" Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 102-110). Although a number of studies have shown that more women than men are interested in discussing relationships, this tendency sometimes goes the other way.
Discussing the Relationship is Necessary for its Growth
When a person fails to share his inner thoughts including positive as well as negative feelings towards his partner, there is a flaw in the relationship since discussing the various interactions that make up the relationship between two people is a necessary process for repair and growth. A person who misses these opportunities to fine-tune and improve the relationship, creates distance between himself and his partner and permits frustrations and friction to build up.
1 (c) Doesn't Understand Importance of Verbally Expressing to Partner Feelings of Love, Appreciation, or Praise
"Pleasant words are as honey, sweet to the soul and healthy to the bones" Proverbs 1:24
Many spouses are unaware of their partner's need to be "stroked" from time to time. These spouses have never been trained or sensitized to the psychological fact that their mate has a want and a need to be complimented, admired, appreciated or assured of their being loved. The strength and variety of these emotional needs vary from person to person, and a full exploration of this subject is part of my protocol in couple counseling.
Sometimes a husband fails to convey to his wife his positive feelings towards her because he unconsciously thinks that she could/should be able to read his mind. Although he might agree that it is important for her to know that she is beautiful in his eyes and is special and important to him, he assumes that it is her responsibility to know his feelings about her through mind reading or osmosis. He is comfortable with this assumption because he relies on her intuitive nature and her knowledge of his personal preferences, likes and dislikes, in so many other areas.
A husband's failure to communicate his love for his wife or his appreciation of her could lead to his wife's insecurity in the relationship. Consequently, she might hesitate to make her emotional needs known to him, much less ask him again and again to fulfill them. If the wife doesn't get her message across about her emotional needs, because he doesn't get his message across that he truly cares, they are both contributing to a vicious cycle and the relationship will suffer. Eventually the woman will try to resign herself to a lackluster relationship. However, if her frustrations mount, as the years go by she might become vulnerable to temptations from admiring males whom she meets in her social circles or in the course of her professional life.
Case History Number One:
Janet, 36, an attractive, outgoing self employed successful entrepreneur met a lot of interesting people at work who were attracted to her because of her good looks, engaging personality and her successful business accomplishments. Janet’s husband, Alvin, 42, a software developer truly loved Janet but was not the romantic type. Alvin rarely praised her appearance or looks, nor did he verbally express his love and other feelings. As the years went by, she felt more and more unappreciated and taken for granted. She began to contrast the lack of romance, admiration and virtual emotional starvation she was getting at home with the frequent compliments and flirtations she experienced at work. Eventually, her lingering and chronic hunger for attention, appreciation and admiration led her to a mild involvement with a longtime admiring third party. Luckily, she nipped the growing clandestine relationship before it went too far and voluntarily revealed it and discussed it with her husband. Alvin was shaken up by the news and agreed to go into marriage counseling with Janet.
Alvin honestly thought that he was a good husband; and in many ways he was. But he was unaware of the emotional role that his wife had expected him to fulfill. Not having understood Janet's emotional needs, he had made no attempts to fulfill them. During the course of our counseling sessions Alvin was truly surprised to learn how his neglectful conduct had brought about a deterioration in his marriage and how it had made Janet vulnerable to attention from another source. He immediately began to do what he could to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, it had taken a crisis for him to understand the serious nature and depth of his marital problem.
I frequently tell my clients that "every cloud has a silver lining." Sometimes it takes a crisis for a couple to give their marriage the attention it should have received all along.
Although there had been much frustration and unhappiness on the part of Janet, she was aware that her husband had not been deliberately depriving her of her due and there had been no ill will on Alvin's part. The problem was that he had been ignorant of Janet's needs, and consequently ignorant of his obligation to fulfill them. However, once the matter was brought to his attention, he pulled himself out of his lethargic approach to romance, shed his old habits and began looking at Janet and relating to her in a new way. The change that took place in this couple was most gratifying for both. Not only did they recapture some of the exciting feelings they had had experienced when they first met, but they also found a new mature understanding and happiness in their hitherto humdrum relationship.
Case History Two:
Robert, a 46 year old physician, who had pulled himself up by the proverbial bootstraps to rise educationally and socially from his humble origins with parents who did not speak English, was very proud of his professional success and his other accomplishments in life. Though successful, he needed to be admired and hear words of praise from his wife Maria but she had no awareness of this need.
Robert claimed that he did tell her about this need again and again, yet it was apparent that he did not get through to her on this issue. Consequently, Maria never quite realized how important it was for Robert that she convey to him her admiration and recognition of his accomplishments. Maria failed to meet his needs in this area because in spite of what he told her, she had always assumed that since Robert was so successful he didn't need emotional support from her.
Maria and I discussed privately the possible reasons why she had failed to grasp her husband's emotional needs in this area. Apparently, the type of communication that Robert wanted did not take place between her parents when she grew up. Not only did her father and mother fail to compliment or praise each other, they also failed to give this type of attention to their children. The reasons for their failure to communicate recognition of accomplishments, praise and appreciation to their children is unknown to me. However, I have heard from many clients of a deliberate decision on the part of parents to withhold praise for their children lest they become "swellheaded." This approach is in error and has long-term harmful consequences.
In my one-to-one sessions with Robert, he complained to me that the only place he got positive reinforcement was at work. When meeting them together, I asked each spouse to list all the things for which they would want their partner to give them praise or recognition. Once Maria's eyes were opened to Robert's need for recognition and praise for his professional and other successes, and the effects of his lingering frustrations on the marriage, she addressed the problem. However, changing her pattern of behavior did not come easily to her. In exploring her inhibitions in fulfilling this task for her husband, we discovered that she was unconsciously conflicted about throwing herself fully into this project to satisfy Robert's emotional needs since she was unhappy about her lack of satisfaction from him on some of her own emotional needs. Mutual revelation of emotional needs had never taken place. Neither spouse had ever grasped their partner's needs.
Reason 2. Talks, But Doesn't Make Sure That Partner is Listening
A lack of trying is not the only reason why people fail to get their message across. Sometimes the failure to get the message across is due to the "mechanics" of the situation. For example, a woman may tell something to her husband/boyfriend but fail to realize that she doesn't have his attention.
Case History Three:
Margie, a 28 year old mother of a three year old child, and employed part time, complained to me that her husband, Tom, a salesman, frequently insisted that she never told him something she distinctly remembers having told him. In examining the situation, it became clear that Tom was a great sports lover, and when engrossed in the excitement of a sporting event, he was all ears and eyes on the TV screen. When she wanted to tell Tom something, Margie would sometimes call out from another room. But even when she spoke to him from the same room, she was often unaware of how involved he was with the fast moving action on the screen. Now, although it is true that Margie had told him what she claimed she had told him, she frequently failed to talk louder than the TV, and often did not have his attention, much less his full attention.
It seems that on some occasions, Tom was not even aware that Margie was talking to him, much less did he absorb what she was trying to convey. But even on those occasions when he was aware of her presence, he was so engrossed in something else, such as trying to get his remote control to work, surfing the Internet, or doing take-home work that he frequently failed to redirect his focus to pay attention to her. Margie's problem was that she often approached Tom at the wrong time, when his mind was elsewhere, and unknowingly did not get his attention. She mistakenly assumed that talking to him was communicating with him.
It took a lot of frustrating experiences with Tom, much yelling and screaming and many fights before Tom understood that there was something lacking in their communication process. Finally, in response to Margie's frequent complaints and her unhappiness, Tom reluctantly agreed to see a marriage counselor and the matter was brought to my attention.
I explained to Tom how frustrating it was to Margie when she felt that talking to him was like talking to a wall. I further explained that this non-communication could take Margie beyond the anger stage and lead to a state of alienation. I then instructed the couple on some of the basic rules of communication including the absolute requirement that the speaker get the target listener's attention before communication should begin. Margie became more sensitive to timing. She became acutely skilled at getting Tom's attention before she asked him to do something or before she would give him instructions e.g., on taking care of their baby or on some other important matter. I also suggested more dependable ways of assuring her husband's full attention, e.g., by getting him to agree to a nightly meeting with her after the children were asleep. This would afford the couple private time with each other and give them an opportunity to talk about whatever was on their minds. For further discussion on the importance of achieving the listener's attention click here for my article on "The Difference Between Talking And Communicating."
Now, it is true that some people will realistically claim that "there's never a right time" to talk to their partner because he "never makes himself available." Unavailability should be addressed as an interpersonal problem by the marriage counselor; and although avoiding one's partner may be manifested by a lack of communication, there are other symptoms to this problem. Avoidance of one's partner is a serious interpersonal issue and the various underpinnings of the problem must be explored fully with the counselor. Total accessibility to one's spouse, and a free flow of communication will not take place until the basic problem of avoidance is addressed directly and resolved.
Reason 3. Faulty Patterns:
(a) Speaker Mumbles
(b) Speaker is Ambiguous or Vague
(c) Listener Misinterprets
(d) Listener Mind-Reads
3 (a) Speaker Mumbles.
Another example of a failed attempt at communication occurs when a woman gets her partner's attention, but mumbles her words when transmitting her message. Even though both speaker and listener assume that communication has taken place, in effect, he heard something other than what she wanted to say. Consequently, no viable communication has taken place.
3 (b) Speaker is Ambiguous or Vague.
A person is ambiguous when her words can be legitimately interpreted in more than one way. Consequently, her partner may believe he correctly interpreted her words, but in fact she meant them to be interpreted in another way. People are vague when they talk about an event without relating the context, significant details of the event, when they fail to explain the ramifications of what happened or the importance of the event to the speaker (or listener). If the listener fills in these gaps with ideas that emanate from his own imagination, he may very well be wrong. The end result is that the speaker did not get across the message she wished to convey. Here, too, no viable communication has taken place.
3 (c) Listener Misinterprets.
At other times, a spouse may state her position clearly, but for various reasons (and these reasons should be explored), her partner misinterprets what was said.
3 (d) Listener Mind-Reads.
Mind reading is similar to misinterpreting but there is a difference.
In Misinterpreting, the speaker says something, but the listener "hears what he wants to hear" and interprets it in a way that suits his purpose at the time. For example, a woman says "maybe" but her date hears (misinterprets it as) "yes." In a contentious relationship, a spouse makes an innocent remark and her partner misinterprets it as an accusation or attack and gets angry at her.
In Mind-Reading, the speaker doesn't say a word, but her partner assumes that she is thinking something negative about him or is about to attack him. His suppositions might be the farthest thing from her mind, but he reacts with anger as if she is thinking or has already said the thought that he projects onto her. The mind-reader then falsely accuses the innocent "speaker" (who has yet to say anything) of a malicious attack.
Example of Misinterpretation:
Case History Four:
Vicki, a 28 year old homemaker who had married young was proud of the motherly skills and loving devotion that she showered upon her 8 year old son and 6 year old daughter. Her mother-in-law didn't quite see things that way. Further, the mother-in-law was not shy in expressing her disapproval of the care that was being given by her daughter-in-law to "her son's children." In fact, going back a few years, it was not easy for the mother-in-law to lose her firstborn son, Jimmy, when he decided to marry Vicki. Early in the relationship, Vickie developed an insecure feeling about Jimmy's priorities and never quite felt that she was "number one" in his life. She sometimes questioned her husband's commitment to her and his approval of her because of the strong influence of his mother.
Vicki was unhappy about Jimmy's failure to admonish his mother when she acted or spoke inappropriately, and she was very frustrated by his inability to contradict or disagree with his mother. The young wife felt that both mother-in-law and husband had a low regard for her mothering skills since Jimmy failed to support her when his mother criticized something that Vicki had done with regard to the children. This situation set the stage for misunderstandings between husband and wife when it came to the sensitive topic of the children.
Since she had given up her wish to be a nurse when she married and was throwing her heart and soul into being a stay-at-home mom, Vicki was especially sensitive to her mother-in-law's shadow of disapproval, and her husband's seeming acquiescence to his mother's criticism. One day, during one of her mother-in-law's visits, she remarked that her grandson, Vicki's oldest child, was not being taught good manners. Not only did Jimmy fail to defend his wife to his mother, but even after his mother left, he failed to tell Vicki that he disagreed with his mother, and that he considered Vicki a fantastic wife and mother.
Further, Jimmy had actually commented to his mother that he was sorry that he didn't spend enough time with the children. In her heightened sensitivity to the children issue, Vicki went to an extreme in misinterpreting his words. She read into his comment (mind reading) an indirect way of saying to his mother that he needed to spend time with the children in order to teach them better manners and undo the poor parenting that Vicki was giving them.
Other Examples of Misinterpretations
1. A concerned husband quietly asked his wife if she had called the credit company to straighten out an incorrect bill. She misinterpreted his simple question as an accusation. She shouted back, "Why are you always checking up on me? What do you think, I'm so stupid that you can't depend on me to call the credit company?"
2. A man offered to clean up the kitchen. Later his wife asked him if he was "finished with the kitchen." The husband was annoyed at the question because he interpreted it as a precursor to a criticism that he had failed to do certain things and in effect had done a lousy job. He feared that her next words were going to be: "Well if that's what you call finished, I don't. You forgot to…"
In fact, that was not on her mind. Her attitude when asking the question was a desire to be helpful. She had noticed that he had left certain things on the table and she wanted to know whether she should put them away or should she leave them there since he may not be finished with them.
3. A woman asked her partner if he would like to go to the movies with her. He replied "No, I can't." She took this as a rejection because she misinterpreted it as "No. I don't want to spend time with you." In fact, he couldn't go because he had to complete a business project.
4. A wife helped her husband copy a list of names and addresses with phone numbers. When she finished, she told him "There are mistakes on this list." He thought that she was admitting sloppiness on her part, and he got annoyed. In fact, she was referring to mistakes on the original list which she was able to discern while copying them, e.g., different zip codes in the same small town or area codes that belonged in another part of the state.
5. A woman expressed concern to her live-in boyfriend "You look worried, is there a problem?" He got angry at her. He "heard" her say You got a lot of problems, you need help."
6. A wife heard about a special out-of-town event and was enthused about the possibility of going away for the weekend. She proposed the idea to her husband. He said "OK." She was upset because she had expected a more enthusiastic response. She misinterpreted his remark to mean that he really didn't want to go there but would do so reluctantly. He explained to me that he did want to go but that he doesn't get as excited about things as his wife does, and that his "OK" was equivalent to her expression of enthusiasm and great interest. The problem here was that his wife did not understand the difference between her personality and her husband's personality.
7. Failure to understand a spouse's personality was also at the root of the next example of misinterpretation. A young woman was very frustrated by her husband's constant failure to share his thoughts and feelings with her. When she complained about this, he replied: "I'm a simple person and don't have anything on my mind." Since she was always full of emotions and feelings she simply could not accept this as an answer. She told me that she felt lonely in the relationship and betrayed because he was "keeping secrets" from her.
8. In a similar situation, a woman frequently asked her live-in fiance how he felt about some of her ideas, or plans or various events in their life. His most usual answer was that he would have to think about it. She was hurt by this answer because she interpreted it as a brush-off. The man explained in our session that it was not his intention to brush her off. In the ensuing discussion, he expressed marvel at how quickly his fiancee knew exactly how she felt about something. He could not understand how she was able to know her emotions so quickly and so effortlessly. His personality was different. He was not in touch with his emotions and he really did need time to think about a situation before he could tell her how he felt about it.
In all of the situations described here, there was an attempt to communicate; certainly, this is a good beginning. Unfortunately, in all of these situations, the true message did not get across because the listener misinterpreted the words or motives of the speaker. Misunderstandings can result in hurt, disappointment and a breakdown of plans; they often result in frustration, anger and introduce confusion and needless fights into the lives of the participants.
When one or both partners accuse each other of jumping to false conclusions about each other's words or motives, both should address the possible problem of misunderstanding, misinterpretation or mind reading.
Here are some guidelines to follow.
Be alert to the problem and guard against falling into the trap of projecting onto your partner a hostile bias or intent.
When your partner displays a facial expression, or says something that makes you feel hurt, angry, fearful or any feeling of unease or displeasure, suspend acting upon your immediate emotional reaction.
Don't take your partner's words or non-verbal cues at face value.Give your partner the benefit of the doubt by asking for clarification. This will give him an opportunity to clarify—or even modify—his original statement.
For example, if your fiancé says "I am going out with Jonathan and Janet next Saturday" don't jump to the conclusion that he means to exclude you and attack. He may have made a slip of the tongue. But even if he did mean to exclude you, it would help him reconsider if you ask him gently, "Honey, do you mean you alone, or does that include me?"
Reason 4. Doesn't Reveal Self Due to Fear of Criticism or Attack
Virtually all people come into a relationship with a hidden agenda. The hidden agenda refers to subjects that pertain to the individual or to the future relationship that are not discussed with the partner in advance of the commitment to each other, the engagement or marriage. Undisclosed items might include embarrassing or unflattering events of the past or present. Sometime they consist of specific hopes, expectations or demands that one person intends to make on their partner in the future e.g., I would like to have children, don't want to have children, etc. Other subjects that might not be discussed include a poor job history, financial status, debts, drinking or drug history, or other negative habits. Still other avoided topics include family secrets, sexual history, medical history, details of important past events in the person's life such as marriages and long-term relationships, or ongoing ties with an "ex."
One reason why people do not communicate everything about themselves is that they fear vulnerability and negative judgment by their spouse/partner.
A husband might withhold information from his wife because he is afraid that she will think less of him if she knew all the facts, or in a worst case scenario, use this information against him during a fight. Failure to bring these experiences into the open often promotes suspicion and creates distance between spouses. In such a situation, the wife might complain that her husband is a "closed book" or keeps secrets.
Sometimes a spouse discovers an important negative item about her partner after marriage which he/she believes should have been disclosed before marriage. This type of experience can be unsettling, can breed distrust and generally has a negative impact on the relationship. A seed is planted for other problems relating to trust. For more information on this subject, click here for my article on "The Hidden Agenda in Relationships."
Reason 5. Doesn't Communicate Because He Believes That Partner is Not Interested
When a wife (or husband), assumes that her spouse is uninterested in her daily life, a vicious cycle evolves which harms both. There are times when a wife will fail to tell her husband about her day because she thinks that he is not interested. Frequently she does not get feedback from him indicating otherwise. Sometimes her assumption is correct; other times incorrect. But even if her partner is interested, if he doesn't show it; how is she to know? A vicious cycle ensues when his failure to let her know of his interest in her day leads her to believe that he doesn't care. In response, she refrains from sharing her experiences with him. Her failure to relate her daily experiences at work, or with her friends, leads him to the false conclusion that she doesn't want to share this part of her life with him.
Case History Five:
Martha, 54, was a successful physical therapist at a Veteran's Administration Hospital who her took pride in her work with injured veterans. Her husband, Jack, 57, was chief financial officer of a large corporation. Jack rarely asked his wife about her work, in part because of his busy schedule, his constant preoccupation with major problems in his company, and also because Martha didn't seem interested in talking about her day.
Martha, on her part, rarely offered information about her clinical experiences to her husband because she was sensitive to Jack's frequent preoccupation with major company problems, and indeed, his failure to take the initiative in asking her about her day. She further believed that since she didn't earn anywhere near what he earned, he denigrated the importance of her job. The result was that she knew virtually nothing about his professional world and his knowledge of her professional world was no better.
This state of affairs did not seem to bother Jack but it bothered Martha. She felt unimportant in the eyes of her husband because of his apparent disinterest in a very important part of her life. Sadly, she was unaware of how mistaken she was about this supposed attitude of Jack, nor was she aware of the role she was playing in maintaining Jack's lack of communication with her on this subject.
Jack and Martha were not in touch with each other's feelings and a vicious cycle ensued. Martha didn't tell about her activities at the hospital or her feelings about her patients and colleagues because she assumed that Jack was not interested. Since Martha did not initiate discussion about clinic happenings, Jack mistakenly assumed that Martha didn't really care to talk about her work experiences or her relationships with the veterans who she was treating. Sadly, Martha came to the exact same conclusion about Jack's failure to discuss his day with her. Neither of them realized the role that each of them played into bringing about these two misunderstandings. Further, not only were they not communicating with each other about an important part of their lives, they were not communicating about their lack of communication.
Martha and Jack's failure to discuss their day with each other continued for many years until another matter brought them into marriage counseling at which time they learned how their erroneous assumptions about each other had brought about a vicious cycle in their daily interactions. They also learned that their inadequate communication was not only the original cause of their erroneous assumptions which led to their failure to share their day with each other, but that this same inadequacy in communication was the reason why neither of them challenged the status quo for close to three decades.
Although this couple suffered a massive lack of contact with each other, fortunately there was good will on both sides. Martha's full disclosure about her life as a physical therapist and the ongoing events at the V.A. hospital made their evening conversations more interesting and changed Jack's perception of his wife. By listening to the varied problems that Martha faced and how she solved them, Jack's eyes were opened to the major impact his wife had on the lives of the men who came to her clinic for treatment. He also learned a lot about Martha's compassion and concern for each of her patients, and other wonderful qualities about his wife about which he had only been dimly aware. When Jack began discussing the problems and politics of his job, Martha felt much closer to him, and discovered that he valued her opinion when he was facing certain decisions at work. There was an "explosion" of talk between them, and they were like two teenagers during their very first discovery of a "soul mate" with who they can talk for hours. It would be an understatement to say that Martha and Jack began to enjoy a fuller and more satisfying relationship with each other.
When Jack and Martha completed their marriage counseling, Jack marveled to me that in the past if they had to sit with each other for ten minutes they had "nothing to say," but now they could spend hours on end with each other and "keep talking non-stop."
Partners who do not communicate with each other, and fail to communicate about their problem of not communicating are stuck in the mud. Their passivity creates a vicious cycle and perpetuates an undesirable situation. If not for the unexpected problem that brought this couple into therapy, they might have stayed locked in their lack of communication and in their emotional alienation for the rest of their lives.
Reason 6. Doesn't Communicate Because He (or She) Believes That Talking Would be Futile
There are times when one partner would love to communicate because he wants to raise a complaint, pre-empt a problem that might arise, or solve an ongoing problem. However, he doesn't even try because he has learned from sad experience that his partner will either not take the matter seriously, will not be open minded during the discussion, or will not be willing to compromise at the end. He believes that discussing the matter would be futile. This type of situation can bring about a sense of powerlessness and pessimism about his status in the relationship and in his ability to re-mediate a problem. Such a situation will bring about distance between two people which will cause a further deterioration in the relationship. If a problem is not discussed, how can it be resolved? Ignoring it does not make it disappear.
Case History Six:
A couple came to me after twenty one years of marriage. The wife, Marion, was demanding a divorce. Her husband, John, an independent contractor, was flabbergasted. They had not had a fight in the last eighteen years, nor had there been a harsh word between them, or even a disagreement. She had not made a single complaint to him since their only son was born, had never commented negatively on anything he ever did, and never complained that he failed to fulfill a responsibility. He was bewildered: "How could she possibly want a divorce?"
During a few private minutes with Marion at the very beginning of the counseling process, she revealed to me that she experienced great disappointment in John very soon after her marriage to him. Most of their dating and courtship had taken place while she was at an out-of-town college and they hardly knew each other when they married upon her graduation. It did not take her long to discover that her husband did not respect her feelings or opinions and always insisted on having his way. John was one of those "My way, or the highway" kind of persons. She sadly came to the conclusion that discussing a difference of opinion with him or arguing for the purpose of reaching a mutually satisfactory solution was futile.
After struggling with John for three years and getting nowhere, Marion did a 100 per cent shutdown. She stopped complaining and trying to persuade her husband about anything. But she promised herself that when their infant son became independent, she would leave her husband. She reported to me that she bit her tongue, submerged her personality, and went along with everything John wanted for the next eighteen years.
After high school, her son joined the army and Marion began to act upon her original plan to the utter consternation and unbelievable shock of her husband. Her negative position towards him had hardened over a period of many years and was so frozen by the time the couple came to me, in response to John's pleas that they go for marriage counseling rather than to a divorce lawyer, that it was impossible for me to reach her. John and Marion ended up in the divorce court. This was the most extreme case I have ever encountered in which one spouse considered it futile to talk to the other spouse.
Reason 7. Doesn't Communicate Because She Is Afraid of Starting a Fight
It has been aptly said: "One word can start a war."
In this scenario, it is not the fear of futility that stymies communication, but rather the fear of a fight. The fear is based on each person's belief that their partner is short-tempered, extremely argumentative, stubborn, or just looking for a fight. Even in those situations where one or both partners were normally patient when they first met, they have now reached the end of their patience with each other. The slightest spark sets off an explosion. After years of having failed to settle their differences by peaceful negotiation, they have come to the conclusion that they simply cannot handle disagreements without getting into a fight.
In such couples, both partners have "learned" to stop talking to each other about potentially confrontational issues in order to keep the peace. A frequent result of this pessimism about their ability to work out their problems is that the relationship becomes humdrum, loses its former ardor and problems are not solved. As their unhappiness and frustrations build up, such couples slowly drift away from each other. This progressive deterioration eventually leads to a co-existence with little meaningful interaction. At some point, even if they are not looking for an outside relationship, their need for closeness and connection makes them both vulnerable to outside liaisons or to a sudden breakup.
Sometimes One Partner Mistakenly Fears a Fight
In a variation of a couple's fear of fighting as a barrier to communication, it is not the couple but only one of the spouses who fears and avoids confrontations. In this situation, one of the spouses mistakenly equates all complaints and expressions of disagreement with fighting. Frequently, the other spouse would welcome diplomatic, constructive criticisms and fine-tuning of the relationship, but the reticent spouse does not know how to do this. Consequently, he misses numerous opportunities to let his wife know that he would like her to change some of her behaviors so as to please him. His failure to communicate leaves her in the dark and robs her of the chance to enact constructive change to accommodate her husband's wishes and needs.
As the honeymoon period fades away for married as well as unmarried people, the reality of living together with another person with all of its concomitant frustrations gradually settles in. Since it is normal for people to be unhappy when their needs or expectations are not met, it is crucial that the newlyweds, or the newly living together individuals who are not married be adept at revealing their desires and frustrations to each other in a constructive manner. If a person fails to bring his unhappiness to the attention of his partner in a constructive fashion, his concerns will not be addressed and the issues that bother him will remain unresolved.
When problems are not addressed, they pile up, often over many years, and even decades, and eventually the situation reaches a breaking point.
Case History Seven:
Keith, a graphics designer, was unhappy about a number of things in his marriage, but never let his wife Kathy, a school secretary, know his feelings. After five years of marriage, he sprang upon her the announcement that he was leaving her: he moved out. She was shocked. In all their years of marriage he had never given her the slightest reason to suspect any unhappiness on his part. Although they were already separated, he acceded to her request that they go for marriage counseling.
During the few minutes that I spent alone with Keith during the couple's first session, he confided to me that he did not wish to repair the marriage. He came only because of Kathy's reaction to his leaving, and his wish to show her that he was not an uncaring person. He wished to provide her with the support that a marriage counselor would give, and add his own support by his presence at the weekly sessions. Keith was truly concerned about the shock he had administered to Kathy and the pain he had caused her. He was compassionate in his understanding that her illusion of a happy marriage had been shattered. He was also aware that her day-day-living would be more complicated in that she would now be solely responsible for the upkeep of the house and the care of their two dogs. But Keith confided that there was another reason why he came along for counseling. He was curious about the underlying causes of his failed marriage.
During the course of my sessions with the couple, Keith revealed that he hated confrontations. In his eyes, any complaint to his wife or criticism of her behavior would have constituted a confrontation in his eyes, so he never said a word about his unhappiness. As the frustrations and dissatisfactions built up, Keith's bottled-up resentments continued to grow until the pressure reached a force which he could no longer keep under control. He lacked the communication skills to defuse the situation by addressing the problems, and he also lacked the stamina to live with the problems. Keith was caught in a bind. He saw separation and divorce as the only way out.
During subsequent meetings it became clear that Keith, a decent and caring person, was naive about marriage and had the mistaken belief that people who love each other are not supposed to have problems. He incorrectly believed that if problems do occur they will solve themselves. And if they don't, then the couple should split up because the presence of problems that don't go away by themselves proves that the couple is mismatched. He had little insight into the nature of the marital relationship and was woefully lacking in the most rudimentary problem-solving skills.
After listening carefully to Keith's complaints against Kathy and after getting a good feel for his emotional state, I advised him that none of his marital problems seemed insuperable, and that it was clear to me that his erroneous thinking about marriage and his failure to employ rudimentary communication skills including how to complain diplomatically were causative factors in his marital failure. He needed to realize that both of these problems could be remedied.
I further explained that although he was free to separate from—or even permanently leave her—his wife if he so chose, his problems would go with him into any future relationship. It was clear that if he didn't learn good communication skills now, with Kathy, he would have to start from scratch with his next partner. He accepted my evaluation and agreed that it was crucial for him to address his communication deficiencies. I offered to coach him and suggested that since Kathy was willing to talk to him about his unhappiness, he might as well take advantage of this opportunity to develop an ability to reveal his complaints and negative feelings to a woman. Keith agreed that he had nothing to lose and a lot to gain from the experience of taking his wife out to a weekly dinner meeting and discussing with her his hitherto unmentioned accumulated relationship problems with her..
Thus committed to take instruction in problem-solving tools and to practice them on his wife despite their separation. I began his training during joint counseling sessions with the couple and encouraged both partners to meet outside of my office to practice Keith's newly acquired communication skills. Being convinced now that having problems is not an indication that two people are mismatched, and quickly learning that Kathy was more than ready to listen to his pent-up complaints and even willing to accommodate him on the issues that he raised with her, Keith began to look at his nearly defunct marriage in a new light. Eventually, he moved back with Kathy and continued to express his complaints and feelings as problems arose. He and Kathy had profited greatly from their marriage counseling experience. They were both doing well and were happy with each other when they came for their last session.
When Good Communicators Make Tacit Deals With Each Other
Although there are many people who avoid confronting problems because they fear an angry argument, there are also individuals who shy away from a problem due to fear of hurting or aggravating the other party. These couples will discuss all of their problems with each other except for one or two major issues. The avoided issue might involve a problematic adult family member who disturbs the harmony of the marriage by plunging the couple into one crisis after another because of an exaggerated need for attention, money, or even direct care. Or it might involve a difficult child from a previous relationship that was brought into the marriage and household. In these cases both the related and the unrelated spouse might avoid discussing the problem, each for his own reasons. In such a scenario, even when the unrelated spouse resents fulfilling some of the demands of the unreasonable dependent relative, this spouse will often choose to suffer in silence rather than open a can of worms and perhaps find himself in an unwanted fight with his beloved and already tormented spouse. Such a "kindly" avoidance suppresses discussion, prolongs reaching an acceptable solution to the problem, and strains the relationship.
In these situations, I explain to the couple that this "third party" is putting a wedge between them and hurting the relationship. Further, if the dependent is a child or adolescent, he will quickly sense the fact that each parent is isolated and vulnerable in this situation, and will find ways of playing off one against the other to the detriment of all concerned. A constructive goal would be for the two adults to confer with each other and work together on the problem. This will not only benefit the dependent who will now be presented with a united front, but will also benefit the couple since they will no longer be on opposite sides of the fence, but rather on the same side. They will achieve a win-win situation in that they will strengthen the relationship as well as remediate the situation by exchanging ideas and working together on a problem that they both recognize.
Reason 8. Makes Unilateral Decisions Due to Lack of Respect For Partner's Opinion, or by Default
a. Some spouses enjoy the decision-making role, others have it thrust on them
Sometimes a spouse's failure to communicate reflects a lack of respect for her partner's opinion. This type of avoidance might include a wife's reluctance to get her husband's input on matters concerning the house, children, family or friends. The decision-maker thinks that she knows the situation better than her husband by virtue of the fact that she spends more time at home and because it is primarily her responsibility to care for the children or manage the family's social activities with friends. In the same vein, a husband might not ask his wife's opinion about buying a car, investing money or office politics, e.g., his goal of getting a promotion at work, because he thinks "What does she know about getting a promotion in a large corporation, she's had the same job as a teacher in a small school for the last ten years." With regards to buying a new car he might not consult her with respect to the financial implications since he has no confidence in her ability to handle their money obligations. Sometimes the spouse enjoys the decision making role; at other times he/she doesn't.
b. Spouse Does Not Enjoy the Decision-Making Role
In other marriages, the lone decision-maker does not voluntarily choose the decision-maker role, nor do they enjoy it. In fact, she sees this responsibility as an added burden and resents having been thrust into this role. She landed there by default because her spouse is either:
a. A procrastinator, b. Lacks alertness to sense a problem, c. Has difficulty admitting that a problem exists even when another person directly confronts him with it, d. Does not take initiative in making a decision and formulating a solution even when facing a problem he does not deny, or e. Even after a solution is proposed by another person, he cannot be relied upon to fulfill his agreed-upon role in implementing the solution.
In the course of time, her spouse's complacence in the face of problems may lead a woman to the unpleasant conclusion that she has no choice but to assume the role of sole decision-maker and problem solver. In this scenario, the decision-maker may feel resentful that she alone must assume the burden of anticipating and/or being alert to problems that are already thrust on the family, carrying the responsibility of making decisions to formulate and implement solutions, and following through on a variety of family plans to make sure that they are brought to fruition.
Ironical, in some situations of this nature, the passive spouse is happy to be taken care of, but will sometimes make the ironic complaint that his active take-charge partner is too controlling.
As noted at the beginning of the article, the English language forces the author to write "he" or "she" and will not allow for a gender-neutral term such as "it" when referring to a person. All of the points mentioned in this article are relevant to both genders.
Reason 9. Doesn't Share Decisions Because of a Desire to Control
Sometimes people fail to communicate their intentions or plans with their spouse because consulting with another is seen as a limit on their sense of control. Therefore they make unilateral decisions even on matters that affect both partners. For example, when it comes to making a major expenditure such as decorating the house or buying a car, the person might rationalize: "Why do I have to ask him/her for permission to spend my money? I earned it!" to further separation and alienation from each other.
The individual fails to understand that communicating his plans and sharing in the decision-making process does not impair, but in fact enhances his status in the relationship since sharing ideas and consulting with another person strengthens the bond between two people. Failure to communicate with one's spouse due to a desire to control leads to further separation and mutual alienation.
Case History Eight:
Meredith had married young and had given birth to a congenitally ill child. The stress of her son's chronic and deteriorating condition added to her marital woes and she eventually lost both child and marriage. After her husband left, she continued living in the comfortable house they had purchased and furnished together. Meredith threw herself into the business world where her intelligence, charm, initiative and diligence propelled her to more and more responsible positions, but she longed for marriage and family.
To pursue this goal, Meredith went online and eventually met Marshall, a successful NJ businessman. She was impressed by what she learned about this divorced man during the course of their long distance relationship which included a few trips from her home in a cosmopolitan city on the West coast to visit the NJ suburb where Marshall lived and vice versa. Eventually, Meredith was willing to give up her exciting job, friends, family and cosmopolitan existence in a big city to live with Marshall in what she considered an attractive but boring New Jersey suburb. She did this for the sake of her long term goal of marriage and family.
Soon after marriage, Meredith learned to her dismay that she was not living in her own house or even "their" house, but rather in "his" house. Worse, the choice of furniture, rugs, wallpaper, pictures, and overall décor did not reflect Meredith's taste, but rather that of Marshall's ex wife. Consequently, Meredith felt that she was just a shadowy figure residing in her husband's first wife's house.
Meredith explained her plight to Marshall and he agreed to sell the house. However, when a number of months went by and he made no moves in that direction, Meredith felt that she was in limbo. Not only was she unhappy because she was not permitted to change the décor in the house since it was supposed to be for sale, but she was further stymied because Marshall had made no arrangements with a realtor to put the house on the market and he also forbade Meredith from taking steps in that direction. Additionally, when Meredith suggested living in a certain nearby town, more suitable to her tastes, even though her selection was closer to Marshall's business than his present house, he rejected her suggestion
Meredith did not look for a job in New Jersey because of the couple's agreement that they would start a family soon after marriage. At age 36, she was eager to get pregnant, but Marshall was dragging his feet on that matter too. He said that in view of Meredith's numerous complaints and clear unhappiness, he was unsure about the future of the marriage and he did not think the situation warranted bringing a child into the world. Meredith began to feel the full impact of giving up her job, condo and independence. She was now totally under Marshall's control. She saw him as a unilateral decision-maker and was pained that her feelings, needs and wishes were not being considered.
Furthermore, Meredith was now totally removed from her family as well as her friends with whom she used to meet regularly, relax together, visit their customary haunts, and go on spur-of-the-moment mini-, as well as regular, vacations. The loss of her established support system in conjunction with the geographical dislocation was highly disruptive to Meredith and brought on loneliness, despair and the beginnings of depression. These losses made Meredith even more dependent on—and resentful of—Marshall.
All of the above-mentioned factors created friction from the very beginning of Meredith and Marshall's marriage. A vicious cycle ensued: The more unhappy Meredith became, the more insecure Marshall became about the future of the marriage and the more reluctant he was to implement the two major changes that his wife demanded. These changes involved selling a house in which he had lived for many years and with which he was perfectly happy, and bringing a baby into what he considered an unstable marriage. His delays in these two important areas increased her unhappiness and strengthened the vicious cycle. Marshall's refusal to give up control moved the formerly self sufficient Meredith into an untenable position, and contributed greatly to the instability of their fledgling marriage.
Meredith's unhappiness led to a threat of divorce. This plunged the couple into a crisis and catapulted them into marriage counseling. It soon became clear to Marshall that in order to save his marriage it was essential for him to take a long hard look at his controlling attitude and make some very important concessions to meet his wife's wishes.
Reason 10. Couple Does Not Communicate Because of Incompatible Schedules, Heavy Workload and Lack of Time Together
There are couples who would like to engage in discussion and communicate, but their work schedules stand in their way. A restaurant owner leaves his house early and comes home late at night. Policemen, firemen, nurses and others work in shifts which may change from week to week. Physicians, lawyers, accountants, chiropractors and other professionals as well as self employed business people, or corporate executives rarely have 9-5 jobs. Some couples that I have worked with barely see each other during the week. When the weekend arrives, they are so overwhelmed with household duties and children that there is little alone-time with each other. The communication that should take place between them is severely limited..
Sometimes, one member of the couple has frequent out-of-town assignments that separate the couple for days at a time. They may find it hard to keep in touch via telephone because of late meetings and different time zones that complicate the communication process. But even in those not-too-frequent cases where both husband and wife have a "normal" 9-5 routine with a not-too-exhausting commute, one, or both parents may be so burdened with take-home work from the office, household chores, caring for the children or spending quality time with them after the babysitter leaves that by the time they are finished with all their duties, they both flop into bed exhausted. They have virtually no time alone with each other. If both spouses are excellent communicators they will compensate for these handicaps in some way, but should one partner be deficient, and certainly if both partners are deficient in communication skills, the relationship will suffer. In 21st century America, with opportunities opening for women in virtually every area of employment, two working spouses is the norm. The problem of limited communication due to lack of private time together is an all-too-common phenomenon.
Case History Nine:
In the case of one young couple that I saw, the husband went to school during the day and worked at night. His wife was training for a career as a beautician and had the opposite schedule. Both also had Saturday classes. Since they had no children, they were free to spend all of their spare time with each other. But they didn't have spare time and virtually never saw each other. Consequently, they were like two ships passing each other at night. They spent all of their time and energies on their respective careers. The relationship suffered. The husband spent more time with his classmates than with his wife. He became attracted to a young woman at school and had an affair.
Lack of time together and the resulting failure to communicate is sometimes unavoidable and neither person is to blame. But blame is not the issue. The issue is that individuals who do not spend enough time with each other do not strengthen their bond and nourish their relationship. Consequently, their psychological needs are not met. Since people spend a major portion of their waking hours at work where they are frequently partnered with members of the opposite sex, opportunities for close relationships exist. In situations where psychological needs are not met at home, a person may be tempted to become emotionally involved with a third party to fulfill those unmet needs. However, temptations can be resisted. Problems at home can be addressed and resolved.
Reason 11. Communicates in an Offensive Manner
"An angry tongue is worse than a wicked hand." --Author Unknown
Although the speaker may have initial success at gaining the listener's attention and interest, the speaker may lose her initial rapport with the listener—in an instant—because of a hostile manner or an insulting approach. The consequence of an offensive manner is a failure in communication.
In some situations, the speaker may have been truly wronged and therefore feels entitled to yell or scream in righteous indignation. Yet, the complainer doesn't realize that in presenting herself this way, she is alienating the very person she is trying to reach and whose sympathy she is trying to elicit. By attacking, she diverts her spouse's initial goal of absorbing her message to the goal of defending himself or fighting back. In this latter, all-too-frequent situation, how much effective communication will there be? How successful will the wife be at getting her husband to see her hurt, arouse an empathic response, or solve the problem when the clearest message that comes across is her anger? Human beings have an innate understanding of manner and tone both of which overshadow spoken words. Even positive words carry negative weight when they are spoken in an offensive manner, e.g., sarcasm. How then could a person be expected to respond in an accommodating fashion to negative words, such as a complaint when it is not presented diplomatically, but rather with blame or attack?
A variation of the above scenario is one in which both partners initiate the complaint/discussion/argument in a respectful fashion. However at some point, one person "loses it" and raises his voice or insults his partner. Or perhaps he interrupts, counter-accuses on the original complaint against him, counterattacks on another matter, or infringes on any of the other nineteen rules of respectful communication. If his partner follows suit and picks up on this angry mode, the couple is no longer engaged in a constructive discussion or argument; they are fighting.
Because of poor communications skills, many couples will quickly transform a discussion into an argument, and an argument into a fight. During one of these destructive episodes, the original complaint or problem is quickly overshadowed and even forgotten because of the fight that ensues. Sadly, since the problem does not get resolved and the partners are now angry at each other, they are worse off than before. One of the goals of marriage counseling is to teach partners how to discuss, complain and argue respectfully. The end of a good argument is a mutually agreed upon solution. The end of a deteriorated argument is a fight.
Reason 12. Lying or Withholding Vital Information
Deception is the forerunner of serious trouble. Communication means sharing or imparting information. Deception or withholding important information is a form of miscommunication and represents a complete breakdown in the communication process. Trouble is brewing when a person lies or withholds information from one's partner on the theory "What she doesn't know won't hurt her." That individual is treading on thin ice, because he is violating a basic tenet of all relationships: trust. Examples of deception range from not really being at the office so late, as he tells his wife, but being out with his male buddies (or worse, a single friend of the opposite sex) at a bar for a few drinks; this in an example of lying. But even if he did say he was at a bar with his friends, if he didn't specify that it was a go-go bar, he is guilty of withholding sensitive information.
In another situation, a wife or girlfriend is playing with dynamite when the person she met for lunch wasn't really a business associate, but rather an old flame. And a husband or boyfriend is also playing with dynamite when he tells his partner that his boss insisted that he attend an out-of-town business conference, when it was a different kind of conference that he attended. In fact, the conference was purely voluntary and not in the line of company business. Other instances of deception include sending and receiving secret e-mails, or text messages and making secret calls from a cell phone to a "friend from work" who just happens to be a member of the opposite sex. Further, when a wife discovers that her husband changes the password to his computer or cell phone, or erases his outgoing and incoming cell phone messages each day, or worse, discovers that he has a cell phone that she did not know existed, she has reason to be suspicious. Other reasons for suspicion include later than usual hours, more—and longer—out of town trips, more attention to personal appearance, emotional distance, and change in sexual behavior. Using a 21st century high-tech approach to this painful inquiry into spousal infidelity, Ruth Houston lists 829 tell-tale signs, divided into 21 categories, in her book, Is He Cheating on You?
Breaking Trust is a Recipe For Disaster
Any of these lying or withholding-of-information behaviors, or even a temptation to engage in these practices should be brought into the open as quickly as they arise, so that the problem can be nipped in the bud. When a person in a committed relationship crosses a line in the area of trust, it is crucial that such deceptive behavior be addressed. Often, addressing such a problem opens the door for a more thorough evaluation of the relationship and other possible flaws or deficiencies in the relationship are brought to the fore.
Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining
Although it is true that breaking trust is a recipe for disaster, it is also true that even if disaster strikes, for example, when trust is broken due to an act of infidelity, it doesn't mean that the relationship is totally destroyed and beyond repair. But once trust is lost, it takes a lot of hard work, patience, and sustained effort to get the relationship back on track. But even after the painful emotions are addressed and a modus vivendi has been established, there are often painful memories, lingering doubts and a lack of total trust. The length of time it takes to recover from broken trust depends on a number of factors including: the personalities of both partners, their value system, the history of their relationship, the strength of their commitment to maintain the bond with each other, reciprocal sensitivity—especially to the needs of the hurt party, and very careful treading as a new pathway to each other's hearts is formed.
An infidelity shakes a marriage to its roots. Hopefully this will send the couple into a mode of total mobilization. In this mode they take a long hard look at their marriage and assess its importance in their lives, with resultant growth and improvement. The goal of marriage counseling is to jump from the infidelity to a mature re-evaluation, renaissance and rebuilding of the relationship to a higher level than it was ever before.This elevated level of mutual understanding, appreciation, closeness and renewed love constitute the silver lining around the original cloud of despair, depression, hurt, anger and pain.
Click here for my article on "Can There be a Silver Lining Around The Cloud of Infidelity?"
Janis Spring, PhD, wrote two good books on this subject: "After the Affair" and "How Can I Forgive You?" Each book is written with sensitivity and compassion in a non-judgmental way with the goal of helping both partners in their struggle for reconciliation and healing.
Reason 13. Excellent Communication From Speaker But Listener Doesn't Care. Technically Perfect Communication Which Nevertheless Fails to Achieve its Purpose.
There is one more type of failed communication that I'd like to discuss. I am referring to a situation in which an individual tries to get a point across again again, and again, but fails. She may follow every communication rule in the book, but her husband just doesn't get it. He neither wants to hear her complaints nor do anything about them. He finds the status quo perfectly acceptable, and except for her constant complaints, even fine. He may not care very much about her feelings or her state of unhappiness. Or perhaps he does care at some level, but rationalizes that her unhappiness is a passing phase and "she'll get over it." In either case, he doesn't take the problems she presents as serious, and he certainly doesn't think that he and his wife need professional counseling. But she doesn't give up her quest for satisfaction. She talks till she's blue in the face—to no avail—and one day, she's finally "had it." She realizes that she cannot and will not live this way anymore and threatens divorce, or may even go to a lawyer. This mobilizes her husband to act. His eyes are now open to the possibility that he may to lose his wife, children, and the convenient, comfortable family setup. He doesn't want this to happen. Although her complaints had been ignored all these years, she has his attention now. What went wrong in the communication process? This is open to debate.
What Went Wrong?
In the aforementioned scenario, one might be tempted to conclude that since the wife failed to get his attention—a cardinal rule in communication—it was her fault all along that the message of her unhappiness failed to get across to her husband. Support for this argument comes from the fact that when she changed her approach (by threatening divorce) she did get his attention and mobilized him to act.
On the other hand, one may argue that there was nothing wrong with her ability to communicate. During all those years, she was successful in getting the message of her unhappiness across. Her failure was not in her communication skills, but rather in her ability to gain his empathy or cooperation in addressing the problem. Is it a fault in communication that she was unable to persuade him to change his mind about addressing her unhappiness without the threat of divorce? I don't think so.
Let's explore other possibilities as to where the failure lay. Could it be that the fault lay in her persuasive powers? Or could the fault lie in her husband's personality...or in his concept of marriage? Was there something wrong with her husband's attitude to his wife? Was he too selfishly focused on his own needs and indifferent to her needs? Did he simply lack the maturity to love and the capacity to empathize with another person?
Many people in a committed relationship do not realize that their own happiness is inextricably bound to the happiness of their spouse. If they make only minimal efforts to keep their spouse happy, or worse, show an indifference to their spouse's unhappiness, their relationship will not last. It should be noted, however, that unhealthy relationships do last if the short-changed spouse does not have enough self esteem to demand what is rightfully his/hers in the relationship and/or is not mentally healthy enough to pull him/herself out of a relationship that does not meet his/her minimum requirements.
When a couple comes for marriage counseling with the type of problem described above, it is important that they each understand the complexity of the situation. Their lingering problems and the pent-up feelings of frustration, anger and resentment of the short-changed partner are not going to be dissolved in a few counseling sessions. In addition to a time commitment on the part of the couple, both partners must bring to the counselor an intelligent approach, a minimal level of maturity, and above all an open mind. Both spouses must be willing to place their cards on the table face up and play an "open game" with each other. It takes flexibility, a cooperative spirit, and courageous honesty to give the counseling process—and the marriage—a fair chance for success.
Verbal Communication; Behavioral Communication
Although this article emphasized verbal communication and the need to focus on the aforementioned thirteen reasons why people fail to communicate, there is another dimension to communication: behavioral communication. Sometimes a person will complain "How can my partner say that he/she loves me and yet treat me this way?" The Talmud states "It is not what is said that is important, but what is done." More colloquially, we say "Action speaks louder than words."
In order for a marriage to succeed, it is essential that each spouse commit him/her self to the happiness of their partner and express this in words and deeds. In this article, we have spoken at length about words; now, let's talk about deeds. I am referring to the daily acts of kindness, sensitivity and consideration that a loving spouse does for his partner. Loving behavior and deeds reflect the underlying emotions of a caring attitude and an acknowledgment of one's partner's importance and value.
When a positive attitude is supported by positive behavior there will be an increase of love, closeness, and true friendship. Expressing your love with verbal as well as behavioral communication will start a benign cycle which will increase your partner's caring behavior for you, and will create warm, dependable, trusting feelings, and an ever-lasting love between both spouses.
End of article "Thirteen Reasons Why Spouses Fail to Communicate"
For more articles on Effective Communication please click here.
Back to Top of Page
The quickest way to reach Dr. Gross is by phone