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All couples go through periods when communication breaks down, and many couples experience consistent challenges in this area.
Too many self-help books skim the surface, basically telling you to be respectful and a good listener. That’s definitely required, but in order to change unhealthy patterns, it’s always good to understand what drives them in the beginning. Here are the first 5 in my “Top 10” list of reasons couples don’t communicate.
1. Fear of being wrong or being criticized.
Some people avoid sharing their thoughts and feelings because they can’t tolerate the prospect of being wrong or being criticized. These folks usually know all too well how it feels to be humiliated or belittled. They may have grown up with an emotionally abusive parent who routinely shot them down instead of offering support. Or they may have witnessed one parent demeaning the other and concluded (often unconsciously) that communicating inevitably leads to pain. And if they’ve been criticized, however mildly, in their relationship with you, their childhood belief was reinforced. Suggestion: Go slow. Invite your partner to tell you when they feel criticized. Listen attentively when communication is offered. Let your partner know you appreciate their efforts.
2. Withdrawing as punishment or control.
In the face of conflict or discomfort, some people attack, but others withdraw and emotionally go “on strike.” It’s as destructive as an outright attack and often even more confusing. People who resort to it often are controlling in many areas of their lives – finances, parenting, work, and relationships. Suggestion: Recognize and call it what it is. Don’t escalate or try to draw this person out. Stay calm! Your upset only plays into the destructive pattern. This is one of the harder patterns to change without counseling.
3. Lack of skill related to lack of practice.
Some people just haven’t had practice communicating within a close relationship. And let’s face it – the risks are higher when you really care about someone, so for a beginner, putting themselves out there can be a bit daunting. The good news is that there are some basic communication skills that are easily learned. Go online, get a book, or work with a counselor. Why reinvent the wheel? Borrow some techniques that have been proven to work.
4. Impaired interpersonal skills related to “wiring.”
Most babies come into the world with an innate curiosity about others and an intense need to communicate their needs. They seek out opportunities to share their world by reaching out to others. But some folks just aren’t neurologically wired this way. And as adults, they still lack the innate ability to read social cues, navigate the world of emotions, or engage in reciprocal conversation or relationships. They often have tremendous initial appeal to folks looking for the “strong, silent, steady” type or the “quiet, non-demanding” sort. But what was first attractive soon becomes confusing, frustrating and disappointing. Suggestion: You’ll need a professional assessment to see if this is a possibility. Knowledge is powerful in this case, and necessary to help you better understand and work with your partner in ways that contribute to solutions instead of making things worse.
5. Fear of conflict or a general pattern of avoidance.
About 15-20 percent of the population has a naturally anxious temperament. These folks (even in infancy) react to novelty, stress, or conflict by becoming upset and pulling away. As adults, if they haven’t learned how to “self soothe,” they may experience increased heart rate, perspiration, and muscle tension in unfamiliar or intense situations. For them, interpersonal communication – especially if it involves disagreements or very personal self-disclosure – may feel uncomfortable or extreme. Suggestion: Gradual practice and exposure to the benefits of sharing can help this person take more “risks” in communicating. While they probably won’t turn into a talkative extrovert, they may well evolve into a trusted and reliable confidant over time.
Dr. Debra Moore is a psychologist and Director of Fall Creek Counseling Associates, with offices in Roseville and Carmichael. You can reach her at 916-344-0900, or find more information and articles at sacramentopsychology.com.