When couples suffer from communication issues, communication usually isn’t the main issue. The solution is far more difficult– to dig deep and become more emotionally mature people.
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Whenever people subscribe to my email list, a “thank you” email goes out to them and in that email I ask people to tell me something they are struggling with in their marriage right now. Often, I get my post ideas from these emails. Also, I’ve run several surveys through the years asking for people’s marriage struggles. In these emails and replies, I’d say a solid 75% of them report their marriages need help with “communication issues.” (just breezed through some recent emails- and it was more like 90%!).
When marriage goes wrong, it is easy to think that communication issues are the root cause of the problems, but that is generally not true. Usually, even if a troubled couple had amazing communication skills, they would still have marriage issues until each party is willing to work on their OWN issues first.
I recently read Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch and I’m SO excited to share with you some things that I learned because, honestly the way he described marital conflict BLEW MY MIND in the best way.
He says we always talk about marriage problems as solely attachment issues. As in, if we could communicate better or connect more deeply, our marriage problems would dissapate. When really attachment issues are only a part of our marriage issues. The other part is our own personal emotional maturity issues coming to the table.
Most of us are not quite emotionally mature. We blame our spouses for own negative feelings, we hold them accountable for our actions, we seek validation from them when we feel weak or scared or lonely. Often what people are really looking for is acceptance, not necessarily connection. This is so common and left unchecked, this drive for validation and acceptance has the potential to errode a marriage, no matter how good you are at communicating.
Dr. Schnarch puts it this way:
“. . . we’ve taken one kind of intimacy–the type in which our partner accepts and validates us–and convinced ourselves this is what intimacy IS. . . Thus, we assume that intimacy hinges on acceptance and validation from our partner. Likewise we’ve confused ‘good communication’ with being understood the way WE want and getting the response we expect.” – David Schnarch [emphasis added]
David Scharch says when couples complain of communication issues, the antidote is what he calls differentiation– or the ability to both belong to yourself and to your partner. In struggling relationships, those two poles will be in conflict. (to read more about differentiation- check out this article) He says there are four things needed to develop differentiation. They are:
1 “The ability to maintain a clear sense of who you are while you are close to the people who are important to you”
A major marriage myth is that sameness is necessary for the cohesion of a couple–thinking that if you and your spouse are really different your chances of having a successful marriage are less. Research de-bunks this myth. If you or your spouse think you need to be the same (have the same religion, political opinion, parenting tactics, hobbies, etc), then you will become stuck pressuring each other to conform.
This happens all the time. We want to get our way, we want our spouse to agree with us, so we pressure them to come to our side of an issue.
In the face of pressure to conform, having a clear sense of self is crucial. When you have a clear sense of self- or a clear sense of who you are, who you aren’t, what is ok and what is not ok- you are able to successfully navigate what to do when other people pressure you. When you don’t have a clear sense of self, you blame the other person for the pressure. You may accommodate them but then be resentful and hold them accountable for your choice.
Then people say they can’t communicate when really they just aren’t sure who they are and who they aren’t yet. They’d rather have acceptance than connection since real connection would require them owning up to their own weaknesses and imperfections and working through them.
2 “The ability to self-soothe, to regulate your own anxiety”
This is so crucial in a marriage, but so poorly understood. Often we go into marriage with these pie-in-the-sky expectations of what our partner should provide us with. My spouse should make me happy. My spouse should complete me. My spouse should accept me exactly how I am. If they don’t, I must have made the wrong choice. Right?
Probably not. Our own happiness, validation, soothing and completion is OUR JOB! No one else’s.
If people realized and owned up to this responsibility there would be far fewer divorces and miserable marriages. Often though, when we are upset, frustrated, sad, depressed, lonely, or angry with our partner, we see it as their responsibility to fix our emotions. Because either it was their fault in the first place or because we don’t know how to self-soothe and unconsciously place that job on those around us.
“The ability to regulate our own anxiety is the most loving thing we can do for those around us.” – David Schnarch
Couples say, “we just can’t communicate,” when really, they don’t have either the tools or ability or desire to self-soothe and take responsibility for their emotions. (ps the best tool for self-soothing I’ve found I described here and here)
3 “Learning to control your own reactivity”
There is a fine line between owning up to and accepting your feelings and reacting however you want to when you are feeling angry, thinking, “I am entitled to my own feelings!” Which often means “I have the right to control the people around me so I can get rid of the feelings I don’t want.” Or “I have the right to react to everything I’m feeling in order to pass the responsibility of my feelings off on somebody else.”
The more we are able to regulate our emotions, the closer we are able to get to people. That sounds paradoxical- the degree to which we don’t react to each other is what allows us to get close to each other. But we are able to solve problems in our marriage that need solving when we are not reactive. Often our own reactivity is the roadblock that keeps us from solving any problems that need solving.
Many people think they have solved their own reactivity problems by dis-investing. If we don’t care, then we don’t get reactive. But marriage isn’t about becoming indifferent or apathetic to each other- that tactic only builds more wedges not bridges. The sweet spot is strengthening our connection, not shying away from difficult issues and topics, and managing our own reactivity while doing so.
4 “The willingness to tolerate discomfort for growth”
It can be hard to face our insecurities and weaknesses. It can be hard to not feel accepted by our partners. It can be hard to self-soothe and not be reactive. Our knee-jerk reaction when we feel anxiety is often either to run or withdraw. But if we are not willing to tolerate discomfort for growth, well then we’ll never grow.
And if we can’t grow and progress as individuals, our relationships can’t either. We’ll be stuck wanting acceptance, not real connection- which is the ability to be truly seen (good and bad)- and to belong to our partner and ourselves.
When something is hard in marriage, people usually take that as a sign that something is WRONG. Something is going wrong. We can’t communicate, we’ve fallen out of love. But marriage is not a feel good, validation factory. That is not its purpose. Marriage is a people-growing machine. If we never enter into long-term committed relationships, it is easy to never really have to figure ourselves out or face our vices, imperfections and weaknesses. But in marriage, you can’t ignore those because you can bet your spouse will notice them.
Anxiety, discomfort- the very things that would make you think you have a terrible relationship are exactly the way healthy relationships work. BUT you have to be able to handle discomfort through to growth.
Marriage pressures you to become better. It forces you to face your vices and when it does, you have a choice to make- will you hold others responsible for the things in yourself you need to improve? Or will you face it with integrity, own up to your shortcomings and change for yourself and your relationship?
Marriage is the best factory for personal progress there is.
And personal progress – learning to self-soothe, managing your own anxiety, not become reactive and tolerating discomfort for growth- is the best way you can improve your marriage.
Ah marriage. Isn’t it beautiful?
If you want to improve your communication skills, your first steps are to work on learning to self-soothe (I’d suggest reading this book), managing your own anxiety (therapy can be a great help), not becoming reactive (this book is awesome), and tolerating discomfort for growth.
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