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Communication Problems - 5/8/2014

After seeing me in therapy three or four times, Nina said that she was ready to leave her spouse. Everything she had tried in the previous month had failed to alter their marriage, which she described as more a business arrangement than a relationship that included loving emotions, close feelings, or any form of intimacy. She added “I’ve felt this way for ten or twelve years but, in the past, the age of the children and the financial demands involved in raising them were factors that didn’t allow me to behave in a manner that would benefit me, but hurt them. This time, things are different. One child is off at college and the other is only a year behind.”

In Nina’s mind, it was time to make a final decision to either end the relationship, or give it one last try. My suggestion was to bring her husband in with her. “I tried that a year ago, but he left the therapist’s office very angry, almost to the point of being hostile toward the therapist, and claimed that we had no problems except those I created.” She went on to explain that, throughout the marriage, in order to avoid confrontation, open arguments, or volatile outbursts, she had generally complied with her husband’s demands, and that’s what probably accounted for his perception that nothing was wrong. Her concluding remark was, “as long as he’s sexually satisfied, everything is okay, in his mind.”

Eventually, I was able to convince her, before she took the final step of filing for divorce, she should encourage him to come to therapy. She did, but after twenty or thirty minutes, it was evident that everything she had said was accurate. When I questioned her husband regarding his perception of their problems. His response was, “We have no problems. We’re doing much better than many of our friends who aren’t discussing separation or marriage therapy.  The only issue of any significance is the fact that we have communication problems.  

Nina was totally disheartened by Paul’s attitude, but  I saw his statement as a starting point. After all, it’s a statement made by many individuals when they first come to therapy.  “What’s wrong?”, I’ll ask. The answer, more times than I can count, is, “We have communication problems.” Which, by the way, can mean a great number of things.

1. He/she doesn’t hear me.

2. He/she doesn’t agree with me.

3. He/she won’t listen to what I’m saying.

4. He/she doesn’t understand my position.

5. He/she is either lacking in intelligence, has no analytic ability, “doesn’t understand economics and thinks money grows on trees, and spends as though another leaf will always grow after you’ve plucked the limb clean”, etc..

Nevertheless, Paul was absolutely correct. It was as if he was speaking Greek and his wife Portugese. There was no way they could understand each other. They argued over whether their disagreement occurred on Tuesday or Wednesday; where they were when it occurred, and whose mother said what about the other’s parent. None of which changed a thing. But, sadly, they and most other human beings tend to think of facts as truisms that are the same for every one of us. But that’s not the case. Each of us determine what is fact on the basis of criteria that differs from one individual to another. Our facts can stem from:

1. Our own DNA. The basic motivations and predispositions that we brought with us, genetically.

2. The situations we grew up in.  For example, the financial status of the family. One child, usually the eldest, is brought up in a family situation where every dollar needs to be accounted for because money is scarce, while another child, born, let’s say six years later, may have entered the family during far more prosperous times. There are, however, many other situations that affect the way we perceive our world; such our birth order, the values held by our family, the community we grew up in, our religious beliefs, and whether our parents were happy, discontent, or divorced, etc.. Each of which can change over time, and cause children in the same family to differ insofar as how they perceive their world.

3. The parental rearing practices that we were exposed to as children. They strongly determine what we later perceive as facts or see as normal behavior. For example, if we came from a family in which we experienced physical or even sexual abuse, we almost always wind up, and feel ourselves trapped, in a similar marital situation.  However, if we genuinely grew up in a supportive, nurturing, loving home situation, and later find ourselves in a marriage filled with conflict, lacking in emotions, or consisting of hostile or passive-aggressive behavior, we would have far less difficulty ending that relationship or, more than likely, wouldn’t have gotten into it in the first place.

Without a doubt, DNA, situational factors and the way we were reared as children all contribute to the facts we later use to evaluate, and the standards against which we compare the situations in which we find ourselves. Facts, of course, differ from one person to another. Thus, we need to be aware of our spouse’s so-called “facts, i.e., the differences  between us. Otherwise, we are apt to expect our partner to behave and think in ways similar to the way we see the world. Even more, we might feel that any differences from the way we behave and believe are unacceptable, contrary to truth, and lacking in credibility. The end result: we have “communication problems.”

There is, however, another language; i.e., another way to communicate. It’s the language of feelings. It’s a language which, for the most part, few people utilize in their daily lives. But, it’s a language which can solve communication problems. Let me explain: No matter our DNA; who raised us; or what part of the world we come from, our tears, sadness, hurt, anger, joy, happiness or laughter come from the same place. It’s an emotional language that we all share but, sadly, haven’t been taught to use. It’s what I call the language of love. It’s one Paul and Nina never learned, even though Nina thinks she did. Unfortunately, she rarely goes beyond thinking it, as evidenced by the fact that communication between her and Paul consists primarily of arguments over divergent facts based on their own truisms.

In order to eliminate communication problems of this type and build healthy loving relationships, we all need to learn the language of love.  Accordingly, my next article will deal with how to speak that language.

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