Communication is an inherently flawed process. When two human organisms get together, what unfolds between them is a complex web of verbal and non-verbal communication cues that can leave even the most advanced communication practitioner dumbfounded. Once those cues are sent, each person then interprets them and draws conclusions based on their own history and experience—sometimes concluding the exact opposite of what was originally intended. Communication is hard for all of us and there are some good reasons why.
We all perceive reality in unique and different ways.
The person you’re with may look and seem just like you. You may have a lot of similarities and things in common, but the reality is, they experience life in really different ways than you. They have a different perceptual apparatus, different values, different memories of situations you both experienced that appear to be true. This is because we all perceive reality in unique and different ways and this is a common problem in communication between couples. Relationships get stuck when they argue about perception. Arguing about perception is inherently dysfunctional. Instead of arguing about perception, ask, I saw this, what did you see? This was my experience, and the story I made up from it, how about you? Together we create a shared pool of meaning and then we move forward.
Our brains work against us.
Our brains each have unique filters. There’s an infinite amount of information coming through our senses in every moment and we all have our own special gating system. When an event happens, each person takes in different segments of the information available and creates a story about it by interpreting through their own history, values, and experience. If there isn’t a sense of recognition that that’s what the brain is doing, then this leads to conflict.
Our brains have a negativity bias. If it’s not made abundantly clear in a way our unique and individual systems can understand that something is a friendly, supportive, nurturing action or response, our brain easily assumes its negative and even potentially threatening. We are on the lookout for threats, that’s how we evolved. Even neutral is negative. The Still Face Experiment shows how a child begins to distress when presented with a neutral face from its mother. The same thing happens in relationships—when our partner gives us neutral, our brain can assume there is something wrong.
Our brains automate our partner. A major function of the brain is pattern recognition, and about a year into a relationship, we unconsciously begin to automate the other. They become set as known, fixed object and as a result we lose intimacy. We lose the ability to see the bottomless depth and infinite breadth of the human and they start to feel objectified. For instance, you may want to communicate something you think is really simple, like I’d really love it if you cleaned out the coffee cups from the car when you’re done with them. You’ve probably been in a situation like this before, and had your partner get defensive rather than just comply with the request. Why is that? We don’t want to be seen as a means to an end, or as an object of someone else’s agenda, and sometimes this is how these kinds of communications are read. More than anything, we want to be seen, accepted and appreciated for all that we are, and all that we are doing.
Practices to Make Communication Easier.
Co-Creation & Co-Responsibility.
Our nervous systems communicate at lightning speed and we don’t have control over a lot of it. This is why it’s the responsibility of both partners to co-create safety and security in their relationship. If your partner has a negative experience based on your behavior, you are partly responsible for correcting that, even if it wasn’t your intention, and vice versa. If you both have an agreement to quickly repair such inevitable errors you insure that your relationship doesn’t because a toxic heap of resentment that you contemplate leaving on a daily basis. It’s important to not that there’s a big difference between being the one that is always apologizing for the mistakes and errors you are making vs. feeling like it is a shared practice of a you both erring on the side of taking responsibility for your shit (the insensitivities, unconscious remarks, selfish behaviors, and the like).
Practice seeing your partner as a mystery.
This doesn’t come naturally. We default to the mode where we see the other person as an object in our world, rather than a subject having their own experience. In order to move away from that, we have to actively practice seeing them as a subject. This involves setting the intention, and checking and correcting ourselves every time we slip.
One of the best ways to treat your partner as a mystery is to ask them questions. Everybody loves to be asked questions about themselves, and get hyper-specific—in general, we use words symbolically to point at an experience we are having, often without knowing exactly what we want. If my wife says she doesn’t feel connected to me, I could respond by saying, what you are talking about, we just had a date night last night. But then she feels like I don’t care, which is an experience of threat, which leads to her shutting down. But if I say, tell me exactly what you mean, how could you feel more connected, what does it look like to you? It’s much more likely to result in connection and successful communication.
If you find the process of communication challenging, you’re not the only one. There’s a lot standing in the way of free and easy communication, including the way our brains work. However, small changes over long periods make a huge difference, and after years of work in the field of communication, if you put these ideas to practice, I know they’ll have a positive effect.
Much of the above is adapted from the brilliant work of Stan Tatkin and his Psycho-Biological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT). For more info on Stan and his work visit https://www.thepactinstitute.com/
Feel free to reach out to me with any questions, and if you’re interested in diving deeper into the work, book a free consultation and I’ll see if I can help with what you’re going through.