Relationships: When Good Communication Skills Aren’t Enough

by Barry Kerr and Kristine Gay

All kinds of wonderful books and workshops teach good communication skills and tools. How many of these do you practice?

  • Respect timing. Ask permission or schedule a time.
  • Talk in turns. Give your partner a chance to speak.
  • Use “I” statements. Using the word “you” tends to sound like blame, accusation and judgment.
  • Listen without anticipating, judging or constructing your next reply.
  • Be able to repeat what your partner says so he/she feels heard.
  • Listen to understand and negotiate an answer that works for both of you.
  • If necessary, take a break and come back to it later

Do you feel that you know and have tried these, yet somehow, you and your partner keep looping through old arguments, never quite resolving anything? Why?

The above are great skills and without them, things can often go awry. However, by themselves, they don’t necessarily get down to the real issues causing the tensions between you. If you both aren’t able to become aware of and bring forward the deeper feelings of your experience, you’ll just keep sliding past them, continuing to believe in the surface story of your symptoms.

So, how do successful couples get past this common problem?

  1. By accepting that when two people share their lives, their bodies, their fortunes, it’s unavoidable that they will experience many, many conflicts. Compatibility is important, but the goal cannot be to eliminate conflict.
  2. Conscious couples recognize that each partner will react to conflicts in their own way, feeling emotional triggers unique to each of their life histories.
  3. The goal becomes to discover why you are fighting, what’s underneath the surface dispute, and then take responsibility for your part in it.

In working with couples that come to us for help, it’s this deeper level of commitment that makes the difference in outcome. Without each being willing to explore and share their own inner experiences of emotional reactions and psychological habits, they will never understand how they trigger each other, subconsciously, in ways that have less to do with the current situation and more to do with experiences from earlier in life, often childhood. For example, that resentment over the TV remote control may actually reflect a life pattern of people pleasing that started in childhood, nothing to do with your partner.

When couples begin to act as allies, rather than as opponents, they learn how to turn conflicts into explorations of self. This is when relationship gets awesome. Partners can search together for clues and pieces of the past to heal and transform so that the present can be liberated from habitual reactions and reframed.

Without this, relationships can become tiring, stale, or broken. Repeated disputes can become “silent” standoffs, played out sometimes in seconds, but affecting every part of a couple’s existence, including their sex life. It’s deadening. And after a while, they can become blind to its affects.

So why do people resist getting help? Well, people tend to have “good” reasons. They don’t want to hurt their partner with the real truth or upset the apple cart and risk more instability or feel out of control or lose what little good they have. They may think they’ve communicated as best they can.

In our work, we help couples discover their blind spots. Each time it happens is an incredible, liberating and energizing breakthrough for both people. It takes so much energy to stay blind and repressed. When couples renew their willingness to be emotionally honest with each other, as conscious partners, not only do they typically find more authentic resolution to their conflicts, but they can also create a more vibrant bond of attraction and excitement. Each feels the synergy of the relationship affecting their own sense of personal growth and fulfillment. There is gratitude and love, even though more conflicts are inevitably on the horizon. Vulnerability and honesty is a strong aphrodisiac.

Families and society have not done a good job of modeling this for most of us. The good news is that it can be learned from couples that have done the deeper work and know how to teach and coach in safe and nurturing ways.

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