The number one reason couples report to me for wanting relationship counseling is communication problems. It is no wonder that this is the case, communication is at the heart of what it means to be a couple.
The roots of the word communication are two Latin words, communis, which means common, or sharing, and the word, communicare, which means make something common. You can see this also relates to the English word, community.
So perhaps another way of saying, “we are having communication problems with one another” is to say, “ we are having problems being in community with one another”. Indeed, communication problems are at the heart of the difficulty of all human interactions.
I love exploring roots, because they can tell us how we got to where we are. If you find yourself in constant conflict with anyone, especially with someone you love, how did you get there? Why would anyone want to fight, or even hurt, the person that may very well be the most important person in their life? Why is it so difficult for two people to talk their way out of a contentious situation? This should be easy, right? Neither of you really wants to fight.
The co-founder of Imago Couples Therapy, Harville Hendrix, does a good job of illustrating what is going on here. We are “wounded” in our developmental years. Not necessarily out of any fault or error in parenting, although that certainly can play into it. Simply in the process of forming who we think we are, how welcome we feel in life, how possible we believe it is to get our needs met, or even how lovable we believe ourselves to be, are formulated early in our lives in relation to our primary care givers.
If our early experience is "wounding," we carry these "wounds" into our adult lives and and they color all of our relationships. Most of the time we push these “negative” beliefs below the surface of our awareness. When something in our interactions with others reminds us, is our in usually very subtle ways, of our wounds, we react at our core in the way we reacted to the original wounding.
This is what we call being triggered. Since our triggered state is filled with unpleasant, even intolerable feelings, our reflex is to defend ourselves. What usually happens is that we mistakenly attribute the source of these feelings outside of ourselves and we then become defensive. This is how an argument over dirty dishes can turn into a day of stonewalling. It's not about the dishes, it's about the reactivation of core wounds.
One reason romantic partnerships are more prone to triggering is the similarity to our original primary relationship. First, our partner is our primary relationship, as our primary care giver once was. Second, there is a level of physical interaction rivaled only by that with our parent. Third, the adoring look we receive from our partner is similar to the look most of us received from our primary care giver. Furthermore, when that look is withdrawn it can feel just like the abandonment we once felt when that look was withdrawn by our parent
Another reason romantic partnerships are prone to triggering is that we live in a constant mode of correction. We are always in search of a corrective experience. This, according to Hendrix, is part of what drew us to our partners in the first place. On the, what Hencricks calls unconscious level, ( I would call this gut level), we recognized an opportunity to reenact childhood dynamics and this time ‘get it right’, or finally get our needs met.
Communication problems are the result of what we do when being in community is perceived as intolerable. This perception is usually the result of shame about who we are––or fear of what the other may or may not do to give us a sense of being judged, unvalued, undervalued, unseen, unrecognized, misunderstood, or simply bad or wrong.
There is a way out of this cycle of triggers most couples find themselves in. However it may not be what you are thinking and certainly is not what most couples therapists are offering. Teaching communication skills has been shown to not work. Teaching someone to utilize empathetic listening techniques while being criticized is demanding way too much emotional gymnastics.
What I find most effective is to use exercises to encourage dialogue and when that dialogue leads to what feels like unresolvable conflict, we then work towards the roots of what is underneath the conflict. This is accomplished by working individually with each partner, moving towards the original “wounding” that Dr Hendrix talks about.
Instead of using empathetic dialogue, as in the Imago Method, I then help the client work with the original choices that led to the “wounding” and find a way to have a corrective experience, or a way to heal those original wounds. When this happens it becomes easier to separate the past from the present. The fights about dishes can then be simply fights about dishes.
Often our partner does change when we change directions since we have been subtly or not so subtly demanding that our partner be the perfect parent we didn't have as children. So we have been criticizing our partner and our partner has been criticizing us for not being that perfect parent/partner. When we recognize this, we can allow our partner (and ourselves) a great deal more freedom to respond authentically in the present moment.
This technique was developed by Dr. Betty Cannon at The Boulder Psychotherapy Institute where I teach, and I have found it to be consistently effective in repairing communication problems with couples. Many couples have gone on to find new, exciting, and different ways of relating to each other and their interpersonal worlds.