Many couples present to marriage counselling or couple therapy saying “We have communication issues” or “We can’t communicate”. Sometimes, it is in fact a pure communication issue. That means that when one partner says something, the other partner literally hears something else. This would be a genuine miscommunication. What we often see, though, is that there is a mixture of miscommunication and power struggle.
What is a power struggle in marriage? To simplify, it’s when you want one thing while your partner wants another. You want the wall to be painted beige while your partner wants it white. You want to live in a house while your partner wants a condo. You want 2 children while your partner wants 3. You want to spend money on entertainment while your partner wants to save for a better car. This list can be endless and applies to dating couples as well.
It is very rare that a couple would present in couples therapy saying “We have power struggle issues”. Instead, they say “We have communication issues”. Do a simple test. Think of something that both you and your partner agree on. Hopefully, there is at least one thing where the two of you are on the same page! Maybe you both like to order pizza on a Friday night. If that is the case, then try to communicate to your partner about ordering the pizza you both like this coming Friday. Chances are your communication will go very smoothly.
You don’t need any extra skills or tools. Your partner will not only listen to your suggestion but will hear you well and will probably respond positively. You, in turn, will hear them too and agree. Both of you will be happy with that interaction. Why? Because there are no underlying issues. When the issue is non-controversial, you are both naturally good communicators.
Imagine, if there was a pure communication issue in your relationship. Then, in the example above, you would offer “It’s Friday, let’s order pizza tonight.” Your partner would say “What are you talking about? I don’t want pasta we always order pizza.” You: “I didn’t say pasta, I said pizza!” Partner: “I know what I heard. Don’t raise your voice when you talk to me!” You: “I am calm! You should stop criticizing me…” That would be a pure communication issue that resulted in a fight.
If you are successful in the above experiment and have a positive communication experience with your partner on a non-controversial issue that probably means that the real issue is not communication per se. The real issue may be that you lose your communication ability only when you and your partner disagree on something. If that is that case, it would be fair to say that you have communication issues only when it comes to difficult conversations. There is good news that comes with that. That is a solvable issue! Please note that a pure communication issue is much more difficult to resolve because it would involve raising your general aptitude level, getting a hearing aid, and working with a speech therapist.
When we work with couples on “communication issues” we help both partners recognize that they are in a difficult conversation that requires a different set of tools. When you talk about an easy issue, you don’t need any additional tools. You both know how to order a pizza. In effective marriage counselling or couple therapy you will learn how to recognize a power struggle. You will realize, in a timely manner, that you are having a difficult conversation and there is a risk of getting bogged down in a power struggle. You will learn how to work through the underlying issues as opposed to engaging in a tug-of-war on superficial disagreements. You will then apply the practical tools of moving your difficult conversation forward rather than going in circles.
If you and your partner have not previously had a good experience having difficult conversations, it is not surprising that one or both of you are avoiding them while trying to keep it light and simple. In that case, couples therapy can help you process those built up issues with an impartial mediator. When your slate is more or less clean, then you can continue using the communication skills and tools and not brush things under the rug until the rug is full.