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  • peterjones3000

"I want to work on communication"

Updated: Feb 19

Note: I write these blogs as a consultant to therapists wanting to start working with couples. But there is also a take-away for couples reading this blog entry: communication works well only when partners have overarching but clear agreements for how to treat each other. For instance, have they agreed on how to handle distress during conflict? How many topics should be handled at once? (1 only!) Do they have a principle for breaking ties? When these agreements are in place they lighten the burden of working with more specific, mundane topics.

The problem: Couples regularly come into couples therapy asking to work on communication. It's the first thing they say because it's how they understand their struggle. But it's a trap, and part of the problem, because the way they think of it is more akin to compliance––even obedience–than to collaborative interaction. Thus each can easily feel the the other's communications are self-serving, capricious, and tied only to partner-internal priorities rather than to shared interests and concerns. Hearing the other say "it's a communication problem" will likely land as "she/he won't do what I want them to do." But that's a compliance (or even obedience) problem, not a communication problem!

Couples therapists need a way to hear and transform "we aren't communicating" into something workable with a clearly defined shape and form that can yield a path forward, away from compliance/obedience and towards a shared project. This requires ensuring that the couple is on the same page about what constitutes shared interests and concerns, as opposed to individual interests and concerns.

Transforming "communication" into something workable: Couples therapists (and couples) can ward off the compliance/obedience trap by seeing communication as the collaborative coordination of mutually satisfying activity. Specifying in this way allows us to create a workshop or treatment plan for clients. The specs can be defined as:

Collaborative: We work together, pooling our energies and ideas.

Coordination: We work together towards a shared, local goal.

Mutually satisfying: We work according to larger permanent shared principles.

The latter is the most important adjustment for couples in couple therapy.

Creating a treatment or workshopping plan: Sam and Carlos tell their therapist in the first session that their unhappiness is about communication. The therapist asks clients to first settle on what the bigger principles are for their relationship--yes, they want to communicate well, but what overarching principles do they agree they agree on for how to treat each other while doing so? After some time, with the therapist's help, the couple is able to itemize six to twelve fundamental principles they agree they must fulfill no matter what as a contribution to their well-being. One such principle is "we tend to our partner when they are in distress." Though they hadn't said it out loud in this form before, they see immediately that it is in their best interest to agree to it. They see that without the anticipation of relief of distress should it arise, collaboration will cease.

The therapist is guided by the understanding that communication works best if partners are working together not only on a local, immediate goal (when to clean the house, or who will do what around bill-paying, for instance) but also according to their overarching, permanent shared principles for the relationship. Principles include: "we tend to our partner when they are in distress". Or: "we never run each other over in decision making; we move only when we have a win-win". "We protect the relationship from interruption by third parties--whether children, in-laws, teachers, substances, bosses...." The principles can be phrased in different ways but the phrasing must always be agreed upon. They must be seen and felt to constrain how partners act with each other because it is in their best interest to do so. With those similarities clearly in mind, the differences around a more specific topic like, when to clean the house, are les likely to create increased stress and threat.

Communication of underlined by shared principles requires specific practices: By the end of the second therapy session with Sam & Carlos, at least one partner experiences distress around how they feel they are being treated around plans for the weekend. The therapist intervenes only when the couple shows that they either are not good at recognizing the partner's distress, providing relief in the moment, or at receiving relief from their partner. This work on specific skills or practices is fairly straightforward, not to say easy. It will likely take time and multiple experiences to ensure that the right skills/practices/tactics are on board to fulfill all of the couple's principles for their relationship. Instead of throwing their hands up and saying we can't communicate, the couple drops what they are doing to handle their partner's distress. With distress addressed, the couple can then return to the topic of the weekend.

Bottom Line: The trap Sam and Carlos fell into was to not see that the default meaning for "communication" too easily slides into compliance or obedience to each other's wants and needs. Of course, this isn't how it starts out, but under stress our working definitions can narrow and become self protective; there is nothing as self protective as my partner must show evidence of doing what i want them to do. Sometimes the complaint is phrased in an apparently innocuous manner such as "I need to be seen and heard". While this is a lovely sentiment, in practice, if it boils down to "I know you hear and see me when you do what I want," it is another way of replacing collaboration with compliance/obedience. No partner will agree that that is what they are saying, but in effect, it's what they are doing. Couple therapy must show couples that wants and needs will feel capricious and self-centered to each other unless they also hold themselves to larger agreements on how to behave with each other. The agreements must ward off any sliding into compliance or obedience as what they expect of each other. When these agreements are clear, the necessary tactics are easy to identify. When the agreements are unclear, and/or no one feels they can actually count on them, skillful tactics won't help much.

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