In this month’s blog, I am writing about the importance of effective communication in a marriage or partnership. Most will agree that communication is important, but many of us (contrary to what we’d like to believe) are actually ineffective communicators. This is not meant to be critical, but to make the point that communication in a marriage or partnership is frequently difficult. Why? Because a healthy relationship requires intimacy which require three separate levels of communication.
The first level is called functional communication. Functional communication is communication that informs another. For example:
Partner: “What’s the temperature outside?”
Partner: “Have you seen my wallet?”
Partner: “What time are we going out tonight?”
This first level of communication is necessary but, in and of itself, cannot foster a healthy relationship. There is only an illusion of a relationship if only functional communication is present.
For a real relationship to exist, one that includes connection and intimacy, there must be two additional levels of communication. These two additional levels are called ‘engaging’ and ‘responsive’ communication.
Engaging communication, as the name suggests, is communication that engages another on an emotional level. For example:
Partner: “It looks like something is bothering you. Are you okay?”
The above question opens up or ‘engages’ a different level of communication, creating an opportunity to discuss the partner’s thoughts and feelings about a particular problem. This is necessary to the resolution of resentment and conflict.
The third level of communication is termed responsive communication. Responsive communication responds to the partner’s attempts to engage. A response to the above question might be:
Partner: “Something IS bothering me. I feel hurt because you don’t seem to really listen when I’m talking to you.”
The above response, answers the partners question in a way the permits deeper communication, understanding and empathy.
While these three levels of communication may appear to be self-evident and even simple, they are not. Many use only the first (functional) level of communication. Again, if only functional communication exists, there is only the illusion of a relationship because there can be no intimacy or honesty about differences or conflict in the relationship.
All three levels of communication may have been present in the ‘honeymoon’ phase of a relationship, but more often than not, the latter two levels breakdown once the honeymoon is over. If this happens, the relationship begins to die.
Bottom line: communication is far from simple in the majority of relationships. Why? Because each of us have underlying emotional dynamics that involve fear of disapproval, conflict, or rejection. Let us take a look at some of these emotional dynamics:
- Many repress their emotions because they don’t trust themselves and, as a result, believe their perceptions and feelings are not valid. This is a condition of low self-esteem.
- Many are pleasers and have a high need for approval. These people will not express themselves for fear of disapproval, conflict, or rejection.
- Many pay little attention to what they think and feel (avoidance). As a result, they remain emotionally unaware and unable to express their thoughts and feelings. These people often ignore problems and challenges in need of attention.
- Many view communication as terrifying because it makes them feel vulnerable. Consequently, they remain closed and essentially unknowable.
- Many view the expression of personal thoughts and feelings as ‘weak.’ This belief stems from fear of judgment and vulnerability.
- Many are ‘right fighters’ and hostile towards their partner. These people do not care about their partner’s wants, needs, and feelings. They concern themselves only with what they want and being ‘right’. These people see relationships as a competition where their must be a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser’. They refuse to communicate and tend to withhold or ignore in order to control the interpersonal communication.
The above are just some of the underlying emotional dynamics that affect open and clear communication because of a fear of conflict, vulnerability, or rejection.
We all have ‘blinders’ and, as a result, may not be able to accurately assess whether our communication is helpful or harmful.
The bottom line is that healthy communication is essential to a healthy relationship. Our ‘blinders’ and fears may prevent engaging and responsive communication.
Couple or marriage counselling is an empowering approach to help partners identify their underlying emotional dynamics that prevent open, honest communication. When these underlying dynamics are addressed and rectified, partners communicate openly and honestly making intimacy, openness, and connection possible and real. The relationship then begins to thrive.
If you feel that your relationship could benefit from healthier communication, contact me and you will see how quickly your relationship can improve!