Written by: Rebecca Hirsch, AMFT
We all process information differently. Some of us need to talk it out as soon as issues arise, while some of us need a couple of hours or even a couple of days to gather our thoughts before discussing it. A common communication dynamic that I see as a couples therapist are two individuals who process information and communicate differently. Often times, one partner is an external processor while the other partner is an internal processor. External processors are more likely to be extroverts and process information by talking things out loud. They will often be thinking about what they are saying as they are already saying it. As soon as something comes up, an external processor will immediately want to discuss it and process it. On the other hand, an internal processor is more likely to be an introvert and will need to take time to think and process before discussing something. Internal processors will want to have a clear idea of what they want to say before saying it, which can sometimes take hours or days to sort through. As one might imagine, a relationship between an internal processor and external processor has the potential to create a lot of miscommunication, conflict, and unhealthy communication patterns.
A common dynamic I see in couples therapy is a cycle of unhealthy communication between an external processor and an internal processor. An issue will come up and the external processor will want to address it and discuss it immediately. This individual will seek out their partner and will begin processing the issue out loud and has an expectation that the internal processing partner should be right there with them addressing and discussing the issue. In response, the internal processing partner will need time and space to think about what they want to say. Often times, internal processors do not know how to communicate to their partners that they need time alone to gather their thoughts. When the internal processor does not respond the way the external processor wants or expects them to, the external processor takes it as a message that they do not care or they are not listening. This will cause them to only push the issue more. In other words, I am not getting what I need from you, so I am going to keep pushing the issue until you respond to me. This will only cause the internal processing partner to shut down even more. This cycle continues on and on. This will often come out in therapy as, “I never feel like I’m heard”, “I need space”, or “I don’t feel comfortable discussing difficult topics”.
The best way to prevent this cycle from continuing is to first have awareness of your different processing and communication styles. Neither style is better than the other; it is simply a style of communication that we often learn from our upbringing. When we bring awareness to our communication styles, it allows our partners to have a better understanding of why we push or shut down. The challenge for an external processor is to give the internal processor the time and space they are craving. When an issue arises, the external processor can say what they need to say in a patient and compassionate manner, and then let it be. The challenge for the internal processor is to acknowledge the issue and validate their partner’s concerns while also asking for space. An example of this would be, “This issue is important to me too, and I agree that we need to address it. I need a couple of hours to gather my thoughts, and then I will come back to you to continue this conversation.” When an internal processor responds this way, it lets the other partner know that they have been heard and validated, which is often times half of the battle. This will require the external processor to hold up their end of the bargain and let the internal processor come to them when they are ready and feel safe to discuss their thoughts and feelings.
This is a very common dynamic between couples. It can often feel like an endless cycle where nothing gets resolved or addressed. If you want to work on your communication with your partner and are looking for tools on how to better discuss difficult topics, reaching out Symmetry Counseling Chicago to make an appointment with a couples therapist.