“Why can’t we comminicate”? This is one of the most common concerns that couples cite when they begin counselling with me. In recent weeks, as restrictions ease and and certain pre-lock down activities resume, like-going to restaurants, working out, visiting friends and travelling around the “Maritime bubble”, I’ve had many couples tell me they are arguing more often as they to navigate their differing comfort levels.
Daily, there are questions like; should we eat out or cook at home? Do I work out at the gym or in the basement? Will we attend the family reunion? Is it safe to send our kids back to school?
One partner might have a chronic or acute illness and be at risk for complications from the virus.
Maybe one partner has parents who are older and more vulnerable and feels more apprehensive about increasing social interactions.
Or, perhaps one partner prefers the quiet, slower pace enforced by the pandemic, and doesn’t long to return to their pre-pandemic hustle and bustle.
However, if the other partner craves social connection with others or longs to return to their pre-lockdown routine as closely as possible, this can cause friction in the relationship as the couple seeks to adapt to new realities.
For many couples, these daily routines and decisions had long been addressed. They feel surprised and frustrated by the increase in conflict and poor communication, now that the answers to these questions may no longer seem so clear.
While our present circumstances certainly provide plenty of content for disagreements, any number of topics can be at the heart of a couple’s failure to communicate. Some of the most common topics that couples cite are; sex, finances, kids, in-laws and how much time to spend together.
What Creates a Communication Breakdown?
Why can these particular topics cause communication breakdown so frequently? Kyle Benson, one of my favourite relationship bloggers, says that it’s because they are “issues that are sensitive to our heart-typically something from our childhood or a previous relationship. These issues are often called triggers. Triggers are emotional buttons that we all possess, and when these buttons are pushed, it brings up certain feelings in us and we react accordingly.”
When we are triggered, we lose sight of the impact we have on our partner and the importance of our relationship. We get caught in emotional reactivity, because, according to psychologist and relationship expert Sue Johnson, “our brain codes moments of disconnection in love relationships as a threat.”
The way that our brains react to threatening or dangerous situations is for our amygdala to trigger the fight/flight/freeze response and to prepare the body for an emergency by flooding it with adrenalin and cortisol.
Why Can’t We Communicate Effectively?
Sometimes, under increased emotional stress, people turn down the emotional intensity by turning away from their partners and keep their emotions to themselves. This makes it hard for their partners to understand what they are going through or to provide support.
Other times, people become more reactive and their emotions bubble over. They express their intense feelings by turning against their partner in anger, frustration and criticism.
Bottling up or bubbling over with emotion directed at your partner can create a negative cycle where an argument escalates quickly, leaving both people feeling even more frustrated, confused and alone.
When couples get stuck in this negative cycle they rarely get a chance to deal with the underlying issues, but rather get caught in communication break down.
Even couples who typically communicate well, can experience a communication break down when there are many difficult decisions to make, if emotions are running high or are going through situations that are stressful.
When these moments of disconnection happen often and communication seems to be increasingly difficult, people begin to feel that there are real problems in their relationship.
How to Have A More Productive Conversation
1. First, on your own, identify the specific scenario that brought up your strong feelings. What was it that your partner did/said? What specific behaviours or body language got under your skin? What exactly were you reacting to?
2. Then identify the worst, most negative thoughts you have about your partner, yourself or the relationship that arose in that moment as a result of the interaction. (ie. “You don’t care about me”, “You don’t take my needs seriously”, “You’re trying to control me”, “Our relationship won’t survive this”).
3. Next, choose from the list of emotions here and pick the word(s) that best describe what you are feeling in these moments.
4. Ask yourself; do you show theses feelings or express them in a clear way to your partner? If not, what feelings do you usually express to them? Often it’s anger, frustration or no feelings at all.
5. Later, after the emotional intensity has passed, when you are both able to engage in conversation. Have each person take a turn sharing with the other about what happened to them during the ‘rocky moment’.
“When you stopped talking and looked at your phone when I was trying to tell you about how nervous I was to send Johnny back to school this fall, I felt like you didn’t care about me or take my concerns seriously. I felt really afraid and alone.”
6. Listen attentively to the other person’s experience, accept how you contributed to their distress, even if unintentional, and explore how you can be there for them.
Is It Possible to Improve Communication In Our Relationship?
Once a couple discovers what their triggers are, and works out a way to successfully communicate their thoughts and feelings with each other, they will begin to have more productive conversations. This help them to see their partner as more accessible, engaged and responsive to them and ultimately feel more statisfied with the communication in the relationship.
As a couple learns what each others vulnerabilities and sensitivities are, they can learn to soothe each others ‘raw spots’. This will bring them closer together and make each person feel more safe and secure as the trust within the relationship deepens.
If you’ve been struggling with relationship communication breakdowns and you just haven’t been able to work out your issues, marriage & couples counselling can be very helpful. I invite you to reach out for a free 15 minute consultation to see if we’d be a good fit to work together, to help get your relationship back on track.