Indeed, what distinguishes master couples is not the ability to avoid fights but the ability to repair routine disconnections.
–Dr. John Gottman
When every interaction ends in anger, resentment, or stonewalling, many couples turn to counseling for help with communication. These couples want “tools” to help them communicate more effectively, assuming they just aren’t equipped.
The problem is, these individuals are successful at work and in other areas of life. How is it they are able to communicate well with others but lose all skill with their partner?
The answer is, the problem with their partner is not an issue with communication but is a signal of dysregulation. We are created to connect, and our marriage partner is our most special other. When we feel misunderstood or unheard, our emotional brain gets triggered. We feel frightened. We fight, flee, or freeze. In those moments, cognitive tools won’t work; logic and reason are gone. Each partner needs soothing at a deep, emotional level—much like the way we soothe our babies when they are upset. Yet, the very one who should offer such soothing feels like the enemy.
Many couples with communication issues have established a pattern of criticize/defend.
One partner—in an attempt to elicit something from the other, who seems so distant—will launch an attack. The other goes to a place of withdrawal or defense, not sensing that the criticism is actually a protest against disconnection. It’s hard to hear what the attacker is saying, hard to see their point of view, because the emotional brain goes into fight or flight mode. Empathy and understanding are gone. The battle line is drawn with the very one you vowed to love and honor.
Other couples have moved beyond criticism and defense to a place of silence. They’ve fled from each other because the fighting was too much to bear. The battle still wages in their hearts, but all is silent. In their heart, contempt for the other grows: Why is he so distant? Why can’t she just ____? Did I marry the wrong person?
As I provide counseling to couples, I help them build safety and attachment with one another. As they sense their partner is there for them—available and attuned—they are able to calm the distress signals in their brain and settle into more regulated communication patterns. My office is a safe place to learn a different interaction pattern as each partner lets the other see and hear more vulnerable messages of longing and pain.
The arguments, the distance, it all seems insurmountable, but I’m here to help. You can find one another again. Is it time to admit how tense things are between you? Is it time find another way? If you are in the Woodstock, Georgia, area, reach out today to see if I might be a good fit to provide marriage therapy. You can learn to repair the miscommunication in your relationship.
My spouse is withdrawn, disinterested in the meaningful conversations I push for. Is it a lost cause to hope for better communication?
No one is a “lost cause” as we are all born with an innate drive to reach out and connect. In childhood, we learn whether others will respond reliably. If caregivers are not attuned, the child learns to protect himself by assembling a wall between self and other. He disengages because intimate conversation feels too risky. The good news is, attachment styles can change in adulthood. Marriage therapy can foster a secure connection between the two of you, allowing for more meaningful conversations. When you are both able to vulnerably express the needs and longings of your heart, the distance will close.
We communicate and have no trouble saying what we think—but it always ends in a heated argument. My spouse’s words sting for days.
Words are spoken, but no one truly hears. During fights, you are both protesting the lack of connection, but that need is buried deep beneath ugly surface anger. These arguments tell you that you are enemies, instead of lovers deeply hurt by the distance. Marriage therapy can help you de-escalate as you see your destructive patterns and choose a different response. Once you see your spouse’s tender need beneath her angry outburst, you can reach for her and connect.
My partner walks away every time I try to talk about things that matter. This makes me so angry. Can he learn to stay with me until things are settled?
Some partners feel safer walking away. They fear if they stay in the conversation they’ll hurt the relationship by the things they say in the heat of the moment. The marriage matters so much to them that they walk away to keep the peace. It’s hard to see their absence as a sign that they care. In fact, this distance can wound more than angry words. Once you both become aware of your patterns, you can choose a different response. Your partner can come to understand how much you need him in the moments of disagreement, and you can understand your partner’s need for space.
Jennifer is a wife and mother who has walked through many of the struggles she sees in her office. She connects with empathy as she guides clients through the strong emotions that so often accompany family life. She knows what it means to feel stuck between how you thought life would be and how it currently is. If you are near Woodstock and need communication counseling, call for a consult today.