One of the most common and important issues in couples counseling is communication. Without healthy communication, other goals such as building trust, having more intimacy, and demonstrating mutual respect are difficult to attain. For this post, I am going to lay out 6 factors that interfere with our ability to communicate effectively with our partner. Remember, when communication gets better, other facets of the relationship are also likely to improve.
When we struggle with low self-esteem, we are less inclined to share our true emotions because we may subconsciously feel as if they do not matter or that we do not deserve to express ourselves. These emotions will fester and intensify, then manifesting in a maladaptive way causing harm to ourselves, our partner, and the relationship. Our partner is not a mind-reader who knows exactly how we are feeling, so we need to tell them.
Low self-esteem can also manifest in the form of abuse and/or manipulation. People who do not feel good about themselves can be prone to putting others down to make themselves feel better. Sometimes you can tell a lot about how someone feels about themself by the way they treat others.
When we struggle with perfectionism, we strive to always say the right thing at the right time. Since this is unrealistic, we may shutdown in situations that could lead to collaborative communication. We may become flustered when things do not happen as we expected, diverting attention away from our partner and ruminating on the uncontrollable with anxiety and frustration.
Shame is a powerful emotion of self-loathing that can be paralyzing. Compared to guilt (also an impediment to positive communication) shame is when we feel we are a mistake, whereas the former is when we feel bad for making a mistake. Essentially, shame is when we internalize and define ourselves by our shortcomings. When we are feeling shameful our focus tends to be inward, which hinders our ability to listen attentively to our partner and be fully present and engaged in conversations. Recent research suggests that shame is also influenced, not just by the morality of our behavior, but also by our belief about how others perceive our behavior! For example, even if I know that I did nothing wrong, I may still experience a sense of shame if I believe that other people perceive I did.
Unfortunately, lying and manipulation are common in relationships. If we cannot be honest with our partners, it is impossible to build trust. If lying becomes an expectation, rather than an aberration, then our partner has no reason to listen to us. Lying, or distorting the truth, may also cause us to feel guilty and shameful, which obstruct healthy dialog. Healthy communication in relationships requires us to be open and honest even when it does not make us look good.
Lack of boundaries
While being easy-going is a virtue, going along with everything that our partner does can lead us to codependence, essentially enabling our partner’s unhealthy behaviors. Healthy communication thrives when the relationship retains a balance of power, mutual respect, collaboration, and a sense of agency for each partner.
The four main communication styles are: Aggressive, Passive-Aggressive, Assertive, and Passive (to be discussed in a future post). Aggressive communication may consist of yelling, different types of abuse, and/or using degrading language. Aggressive communication drives disconnection, anger, resentment, mistrust, and a lack of safety. When partners yell at each other all they hear is the volume of the other’s voice and not the message being delivered.
Recognizing barriers to positive communication is the first step to improving our relationships. The next step is to identify the qualities of healthy communication. Keep an eye on the Symmetry blog for ways to practice healthy communication, and contact us to arrange an appointment for couples counseling in Chicago!
Robertson, T. E., Sznycer, D., Delton, A. W., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2018). The true trigger of shame: social devaluation is sufficient, wrongdoing is unnecessary. Evolution and Human Behavior, 39, 566-573.