Communicating with “Communication Problem” Couples
A portion of my clientele is made up of couples who seek some kind of assistance claiming they have “communication” problems. They each report their view of the situation that led them to seek therapy because they find it unbearable to be together or try to communicate without it resulting in a argument that can last for days. There are times you could swear each partner lives in a different planet. Each version is so different from their partner’s that I find it amazing how they ever got along in the first place, and how they even agreed to come for therapy together.
Each partner essentially insists their version of their situation is the correct and most accurate one. They are simply reporting on the “facts” and that their partner is simply wrong in their evaluation of what is going on between them. The interesting thing about this dynamic is that they both display equal conviction that their view is the right one. Some couples are simply looking for a “neutral” party to settle the dispute, referee the match or have you join their side to overpower their opponent.
I don’t take sides and I don’t claim neutrality. I am there to evaluate their communication skills and assist them how improving their communication effectiveness is in their best interest to transform their dynamic to a collaborative one where each partner can become the other partner’s best ally and in getting what they want. Basically, it is a two-step process, and I teach them to communicate effectively enough to get what they need by first giving their partner what they need. The operating principle is the following: to get what you want, you have to give your partner what they want and you have to do it together. If one waits for the other to start the process, it will not work.
Much work is needed at this stage to get each partner to trust the other will be trusting too. Rather than acting from an entitlement orientation, I guide them to take on a negotiation perspective. I am reminded of the lengthy title of a book by Karrass,”In business as in life, you don’t get what you deserve,you get what you negotiate”.
To move them away from their “problem” toward what they want to have by the time they no longer require therapy, I usually assist the couple to negotiate and create the most compelling version for themselves what their relationship will be like when they are treating each other the way they want to be treated. I assist them to create that reality as fully as possible and to map out with them what moving toward it will take and how they are able to embody it from now on. Rehearsing preferred outcomes are encouraged and supported both in the therapy sessions and out in the real world where they live together.