Communication in relationships isn’t just about talking to each other
Research by John Gottman, an expert in marital relationships, suggests that whilst communication difficulties are ubiquitous in distressed couples, they are not actually the cause of the distress. Gottman (1999) says that whilst it is vital for couples to address communication issues and to learn how to listen to each other, this alone does not make for a successful relationship. This doesn’t mean that communication skills aren’t important, but research has found that couple therapy focusing only on improved communication fails to result in significant or lasting improvement in the relationship (Hahlweg and Markman, 1998).
Most couples argue at some point, but some couples experience really toxic rows that escalate quickly from the initial topic of disagreement into name-calling and other forms of verbal abuse. Usually these arguments fail to resolve the issue that triggered them (i.e. housework, in-laws) because they are actually about something much deeper – attachments and the feeling of safety, connection and vulnerability in the relationship. This is why so many couples come into counselling saying they have had a terrible argument the day before, but when I ask them what it was about, they can’t remember. They can’t remember because the superficial topic isn’t nearly as relevant as the deeper relationship issue they were arguing over.
There is almost always a deeper theme underpinning a couple’s more toxic arguments (Hewison, Clulow and Drake, 2014). The need to shift our focus from the superficial issue about which we are communicating and to connect and communicate about the underlying deeper issue is why couple communication requires more skill and insight than many other forms of communication.
So what are the two levels of communication in couple relationships?
- The superficial level: Is whatever topic or disagreement is being discussed (such as housework, toothpaste lids, parenting styles, or where to go on holiday etc.)
- The deeper level: Is about attachment, attunement and how vulnerable or safe each partner feels in the relationship. This is what each partner is communicating about the relationship as they are communicating.
So, a discussion about where to go on holiday (superficial) can convey positive or negative messages about the relationship. A partner who says"but we always go where you want...", is communicating that they feel their needs aren’t important to their partner and also that they feel the other partner is exerting power and control in decision making (the deeper issue). This is a deep issue of attachment and is why an apparently superficial discussion about a planned mini-break or holiday can rapidly escalate into a toxic row.
Often couples and families will say that they are good at communicating, but what they really mean is that they are good at talking.
So how is communication different from talking?
Talking does not necessarily build understanding and connection. Communication is the process of building understanding and connection, the process of building intimacy and attachment within relationships. This process engages far more than just talking. In the 1970’s Albert Mehrabian published a book, Silent Messages, where he suggested that only 7% of our communication is verbal, with the other 93% of communication being non-verbal.
We communicate non-verbally through the things we don’t say, the tone of our voice, the pitch of our voice, our body language, our facial expressions, our choices, the level of attention and focus we are giving to the conversation, whether we are making eye-contact and haptics (communication through touch). So, if we want to learn how to communicate well, we need to pay attention to all of these forms of communication and to think about what we are conveying to our partner, friends and family members about our feelings about them and about our relationship with them. Counselling can be a great resource to learn how to communicate well and to improve the level of connection and intimacy experienced within our relationships.
Gottman, J. (1999) The Seven Principles for Making Marriage work. New York, Random House
Hahlweg, K, Markman, H;j. (1998) Effectiveness of behavioural marital therapy: Empirical status of behavioural techniques in preventing and alleviating marital distress. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 56 (3), 440
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