When it comes to conflict in couples – could it really be a communication problem at heart?
In 90% of cases when a couple comes into my office for the first time, I will hear some version of the following:.
“We have a communication problem”; or, “We just don’t communicate anymore”.
But is communication the real issue? Is it just a matter of how we are talking to each other, or is it a bit more complicated than that?
In this short article I’d like to share that in my experience of seeing many couples (and families), that while there usually is a communication issue, rarely is it just that.
Don’t get me wrong; communication is absolutely crucial and as I have written elsewhere (see my article “Is Divorce Just around the Corner?”), a couple’s communication is a key indicator as to whether they are about to separate.
Indeed, the words we use in our relationships tell us a lot about us as a person (see my article “The Power of Words in a Family”), and that is exactly what I’d like to highlight in this article; that sometimes where those words come from, is the underlying issue.
Have a think back to when you first became a couple; those wonderful days when everything was just fine and dandy. The sun was shining and the birds singing! Little or no conflict, and everything just seemed to be smooth sailing.
That is, until some storms came out of nowhere and ruined everything.
After a while, the magic ‘wore off’, and you found yourself irritated, angry or depressed in your relationship. What happened? There are lots of reasons why this occurs.
One of them is simple hormones flooding your system in the early days, softening up the emotions.
Another is that when you fall in love (or you think you are), you tend to be on your best behaviour and limit your bad habits from showing.
So what happens then, when you find yourself getting more and more irritated or wanting to avoid your partner? What is that?
Let me give you a hint; it’s always been there – before, during and after your relationship. It’s you! Does that sound harsh? Don’t let it worry you. Let me explain.
For all of us, the way we communicate to our loved ones is determined by many things, but especially by the quality of relationships when we were young.
For example, if you were raised in a secure, stable home, with an intact family, one where problems were sorted out in a calm, mature manner, and the relationships were restored even after some conflict, then the chances are, your communication skills are going to be fairly good.
On the other hand, if the family you grew up in had too much conflict that went unresolved, where there was lots of anger and no-one felt safe or loved, or there were complicating factors such as alcoholism or abuse, then that most certainly can impact how you resolve conflict with your partner.
Our family of origin doesn’t have to be toxic for there to be communication problems between partners either. Sometimes we marry people who come from very different family backgrounds to ourselves, and the differences just need to be made explicit and worked through.
Communication Problems in Marriage: the underlying issue?
However, overall, if there are significant communication issues and especially if there is a high level of conflict, it usually suggests that each person in the relationship is triggering the other person and a cycle of conflict ensues.
We all have wounds from our pasts to varying degrees; some more, some less. These unresolved wounds make us vulnerable and feel hurt in our relationships. It ‘stings’ and we think that the other person has purposefully tried to ignore us or hurt us.* Here’s an example:
John came from an angry alcoholic family where if things became too heated, he left the house to be with friends. He learnt to get his emotional downtime via physical distance when the stress in the home got too much. Consequently, John has a low tolerance for conflict as he never learnt the skills to manage stress. He also has lots of hobbies outside the home.
Mary on the other hand, came from a family that wasn’t violent, but very emotionally distant. She would often work extremely hard at school and get good grades so her parents would notice her. She never really felt attached to her family either.
After the honeymoon period was over, John and Mary started having difficulties in their relationship. The more Mary tried to pursue John and talk to him about what was wrong, the more he would avoid her. He says Mary “nags”, while Mary says John “clams up”.
In reality, they are both acting out the scripts they were given when they were young. This will continue until Mary understands John’s need for distance when stressed, and John understands Mary’s need for affection when she feels insecure.”
So, is this an example of a communication problem in marriage? Yes, it is, but there also needs to be some understanding of what’s driving the communication problem in the first place. When that happens, addressing a couple’s communication issues will be much easier.
Author: Dr David Ward, BSocWk, BA., Grad Dip (Couple Thpy), M.Couns., MPhil., PhD.
Dr David Ward is an experienced therapist who continues to see many couples and families. He has seen many times the impact of our earlier years on our present-day relationships.
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*In relationships where there is violence, this does occur though. An abusive perpetrator will use violence to control and manipulate and they do so on purpose. What I am talking about in this article is when a couple wound each other out of their unresolved hurt; not when an individual willingly and knowingly uses emotional or physical pain to control another.