How do we get so stuck in the same old pattern of communication and interaction again and again?
We’ll be taking a look at the role of communication pattern in keeping us stuck in relationship problems. This is the final post in a series that looks at the process by how we get stuck in arguments. Other posts in this series have explored the role that personal differences, emotional sensitivities, and external stressors play in creating and maintaining relationship problems.
So, yeah, we know communication is important, tell us something new already!
That’s true communication is very important! Here’s the new part (unless you already happen to know this). Communication is our attempt at dealing with our problems. In fact, our communication patterns mean that we are already taking steps to try and fix things. The problem is that these steps are often ineffective and make things worse.
From the previous posts in the series, we know that personal differences and emotional sensitivities gives us things to fight about. We add situational stressors onto those and presto, we have an argument! Our patterns of communication are HOW we argue, not WHAT we argue about. They are our attempts to deal with the fact that we are different people with different beliefs and preferences (Personal Differences), that we are uniquely emotional humans beings who are sensitive to certain things (Emotional Sensitivities), and that we find ourselves in stress invoking situations (External Stressors).
So, when we have these other issues showing up in our marriage, it makes sense to try and solve or cope with them by how we communicate.
It makes a LOT of since that the wife who has a preference for talking things out, is sensitive to feeling unimportant, and is overwhelmed with work and household stressors might reach out and try to close the gap with her husband by asking for attention. This could be perceived as “nagging”, and it might become more pointed and accusatory over time, though it still continues to make sense. When you feel invalidated and distant, it makes sense to seek validation and try to feel important!
Likewise, it also makes sense that the husband who tends to deal with stress by quietly decompressing, is sensitive towards feeling controlled and criticized, and is also overwhelmed with work and finances might try to increase distance from his wife or get away when he is feeling criticized. This could definitely be seen as avoidant and escaping behaviors, and it could very likely become more pronounced and invalidating over time. However, it still makes a lot of sense. When you feel attacked and criticized, it makes sense to try and get away!
Just because these behaviors make sense, does not mean that they are helpful! In fact, we intuitively know what would be most helpful for each of these people to do. It would be wonderful if the wife could begin to express her needs and wants more gently and to talk about her underlying feelings of hurt instead of (or in addition to) the anger that she is experiencing. It would also be great if the husband could express his feelings of being criticized in a non-blaming way and make room to have conversations with his wife at times that might be a little uncomfortable for him. The problem is that couples get polarized over time.
Polarization is the process by which couples become more and more entrenched in their patterns of communication.
Oftentimes, the longer we try to cope with our problems by engaging in communication patterns that don’t work, the more entrenched we get in them. It’s kind of like two people on the opposite ends of a tug of war – heels dug in, not willing to give an inch. Certainly the most effective thing to do would be to drop the rope (i.e. stop engaging in something that doesn’t work), but human nature seems to make that pretty hard for us.
So, what should be done about patterns of communication?
Well, by and large, the most important thing that can be done is to begin talking about them for what they are – patterns. Typically, arguments have content to them (the things that are being argued about). While it’s important to sometimes acknowledge the content of our arguments, it is vitally important to build the capacity to step back and talk about our patterns. We call this meta-communication, or communicating about how we communicate. An example would be, “when X happens and then I notice you doing Y, I feel hurt and then I typically start doing Z.”
In fact, effective couples counseling is often primarily effective because it gets couples talking about their patterns in a more objective and removed fashion. Dan Wile, a famous couples counselor, calls this “looking at the problem from a platform.” What he is referring to is helping couples to get some distance from their issues and to look down together at their behaviors in certain circumstances. While this is no easy task, especially when we are caught up in our emotions, this can be one of the most important skills that we can bring to our relationships.