“It’s Not Us, It’s Our Communication Issues”
Think about it: When you’re in a fight with your partner, does it keep coming back to one particular topic? Does the discussion of one particular topic keep leading to the same fight? Are you engaged in a stonewalling dance? I have a revelation for you: it’s probably communication issues.
Couples seek therapy for all kinds of reasons, but by and large the most consistent motivator is communication issues. The details are always different—for every relationship, there is a unique definition of “communication issues”—but what remains undeniable is that partners feel “missed” in some way. And when we feel missed its either because we aren’t being seen or because something is getting lost in translation.
Here’s an open secret: what you’re hearing isn’t always what they are saying. What you’re saying isn’t always what they’re hearing.
In other words, there are subjective realities at play for both you and your partner. These realities couldn’t possibly be in complete alignment since you’re different people, so, more often than most of us would like to admit, there are substantial gaps between what is said and what is processed.
You’ve probably thought about this discrepancy but have you really considered its degree of impact? Given the way we’re socialized in American culture, we all need education in upleveling our communication skills. We’ve missed out on learning about the right way to:
- Give feedback
- Hear feedback
- Proceed with emotional honesty
- Share our own experience—how something is impacting us, how it’s making us feel
- Check to make sure that our shared experience is being received the way we think it is
All of this is effortful, but it’s so essential to building shared reality and bridging some of our deepest chasms.
The gaps in our shared realities can lead us through a cycle. When we experience communication issues, we feel missed. This leads to feeling that our needs are unmet or that we, ourselves, are not being met where we’re at. Then, we wonder if we’re in the right relationship and often begin to feel like there is something wrong with us.
This can create a soup of confusion, and a self-feeding loop back into the same experiences that made us feel missed in the first place. Where do we land from here? Typically, in a place of frustration, anger, overwhelm or resentment—often directed at our partner.
Here’s another open secret: your partner (or you) might not “be an a*$hole”; it might just be that you’re experiencing communication issues.
Self-identifying communication issues can be straightforward if you know what to look for:
- If you’re having a variation of the same fight over and over;
- If every time you talk about a certain topic, it leads to a fight; or
- If you’re not fighting, or you’re avoiding fights and difficult conversations because they’re hard…
…then it’s probably communication issues.
These patterns can develop when you and your partner are:
- Avoiding talking something to death
- Talking too much
- Talking too little
- Engaging in one-sided talking
- Listening poorly
It takes work to interrupt these patterns, but with curiosity and a willingness to seek a shared reality with your partner, it’s possible.
In the couples therapy room, when I ask someone, “What did you just hear your partner say?” responses suggest that partners miss 5–10% of what was actually said. While that may not seem like a lot, that missing piece really matters. The partner who’s speaking will start to feel that they’re not really being heard, or wonder if there is a problem. Identifying these moments, though, creates space to inquire about the chasm between two subjective realities.
This curiosity—inquiring about what it is you’re bringing to your side of the communication—is the vital first step in making chasms and patterns conscious so that they can be interrupted.
Ask yourself whether you’re being clear. Ask, from the subjective experience of your partner, what might be getting lost in translation. What is being communicated that isn’t intended? What isn’t being communicated that is intended?
For example, a partner who often interrupts might see what they’re doing as enthusiastic participation in a conversation, as an expression of excitement. But for the other partner, the interruption might be off-putting, and it might feel like being run-over, ignored, and not being able to get a word in edgewise.
When we’re analyzing our own participation in communication with our partner, we have to be diplomatic in our approach. We absolutely must hold the “we” central, prioritizing the relationship over the “I-did” and the “you-did.” (We have to work really hard!) Many of us have aversions to clearing up communication—likely a symptom of our overly individualistic and throwaway culture—but taking the step of pausing, getting curious, and having one awkward conversation can change an entire relationship.
Remember: what you are saying and what your partner is hearing cannot be expected to be the same thing. There is subjective reality, and our work is to build shared reality.
If you’re ready to do this work of building shared reality, I encourage you to begin by downloading the Rupture and Repair workbook and getting deeply curious about what’s really going on in your relationship.