What blocks effective communication in a relationship?

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” –George Bernard Shaw

If you ask couples what they could improve in their relationship, the most common answer would probably be communication.  Many of us seem to struggle from time to time with being able to express ourselves clearly and to understand our partners.  When I work with couples, one of the analogies I often use is that of an iceberg.  I explain that they can only see the very tip of their partner’s iceberg.  Above the water is the behaviors and actions that they can see.  Under the water is where the majority of the iceberg is hidden.  These are the memories, thoughts and emotions that our partner holds.  At the waterline is where communication lies.  Communication is the bridge between what a person is experiencing internally and how they express it externally.  When there is limited communication, partners are left to guess at what the other is feeling based on the behaviors and actions that are witnessed.  Unfortunately, many of the assumptions that we make about our partner, based on what we see, are simply not accurate.

What makes it so difficult for us to communicate effectively?  These are the two most common reasons I have seen:

The first is an assumption that one partner already knows how the other is feeling.  In my work with couples, I often hear partners say that the other should know how they are feeling.  While we clearly know how we are feeling, I think we often forget that others aren’t experiencing situations in the same way that we are.  Just because a situation makes us angry or excited, I think we often expect everyone else to feel the same way, so we don’t bother to talk about it.  Along with this is a tendency to express our emotions one time and then to expect the partner to know it.  I often hear this when partners complain about not being told that they are appreciated or loved.  The conversation sounds like, “Why don’t you ever tell me that you appreciate what I do?”  Which gets responded to with, “I do, I told you that time when you…”

The other reason is a fear of being vulnerable.  When we express our thoughts, emotions, embarrassments and shames, there is a risk that our partner will reject or criticize us.  Many of us have had experiences where we shared something personal and were vulnerable with another person, only to be betrayed by them.  That experience often results in a hardening to protect ourselves from going through that experience again.  The problem is, the brick wall we build so that we don’t get hurt also stops love from penetrating fully.  The fear of sharing vulnerable emotions is met with frustration and anger which often adds bricks to the wall instead of knocking them down.  It is frustrating for both partners when there is a breakdown in communication.

Communication is critical in every healthy relationship.  Next week I will discuss some ways to improve communication.

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