Perhaps the most common reason that couples give for wanting therapy is “to improve our communication.” Sounds simple enough, right? But it turns out that communication is actually quite complex. As Pete Pearson of the Couple’s Institute in Menlo Park points out, good communication is not only the culmination of a pyramid of skills, but it also often involves a series of unnatural acts.
Let’s step back a moment and consider the broad pageant of time. Current estimates are that multicellular life has been on the planet for about 750–800 million years. Humans are estimated to have been around for about 2 to 2 1/2 million years. The origin of structured language is harder to pin down, but let’s say 100,000 years, which would be less than 1% of the time we’ve been around.
What does this have to do with communication? Consider how evolution has shaped us as living beings. The primary biological functions of living beings are to sustain themselves individually and to propagate as a group. Our basic drives see to it that we breathe, drink, eat, and reproduce. These things are so essential that we commonly see them overriding rationality.
Everyone knows that affairs wreak havoc, and yet the rate of affairs in our culture is close to 50% for both men and women. (And BTW, affairs are not just about sex, but that’s another article.) Similarly, most people know that if you eat too much (especially junk food) and don’t exercise enough you’ll become overweight, and that it’s much harder to lose weight than to gain it. Yet more than 1/3 of adults in the US are obese, 3 out of 4 men are overweight, and the rates keep rising.
These are just a few of the ways that biology trumps rationality.
It’s Not That We Don’t Know the Better Way
Most people also know what forms of communication are unproductive or harmful. Couples can routinely tell me what things they do (or more easily what things their partners do) that are less than constructive. They can readily come up with examples like yelling, blaming, withdrawing, slamming the door (yes that is a form of communication!), whining or nagging. They can also imagine more effective methods such as listening, empathizing, having patience and compassion, talking more calmly, or asking for help.
We prove to ourselves over and over what doesn’t work. So if we know what doesn’t work and also what would be better, what is so hard about doing the latter? The answer is that nature has designed human beings to preferentially attend to threatening situations and defend ourselves against them. It’s why people rubberneck on the highway, and why you remember (and sometimes viscerally respond to) that exact place you saw something scary or dangerous happen, even years later
These self-protective mechanisms operate automatically — in modern life often erroneously — and faster than the speed of thought.
Words Will Hurt Me
Brain imaging research suggests that emotional pain is registered in the same part of the brain as physical pain. So when you talk to your partner in a blaming tone you might as well be hitting him or her with a stick or a stone. The expression “biting sarcasm” has a kernel of literal truth to it.
I sometimes tell my clients the story of once clipping my golden retriever’s nails. She is the sweetest, most gentle dog you can imagine. However when I cut one claw just a little bit too close for the first (and only!) time I found my wrist instantly in her jaws. She didn’t actually bite down, both because of her nature and because we specifically trained her not to when she was a puppy. But her reflex was to react immediately to the pain by trying to extinguish the source.
In verbal fights with our partners we do the same without even thinking. I blame you, you blame me back:
“You didn’t close the door.” “Well you didn’t turn out the lights.”
Or, you blame, I defend myself:
“You didn’t get home till two o’clock last night.” “I was too busy.”
The variations are endless but the process boils down to a small set of responses: strike, strike back, and/or deflect or withdraw.
How Language Mucks Things Up
What gets lost in typical verbal interchanges under stress are the underlying emotions that drive the conflict. Underlying “You didn’t get home till two o’clock,” are often hurt, loneliness, disappointment or fear to name a few. It may not be “natural” to name these feelings instead of making an accusing statement, but it is much easier to hear and respond in a connecting way to “I missed you and was disappointed when you didn’t get home until two o’clock.”
Animals resolve their disputes without words. They transmit and receive visual, aural, olfactory, and tactile cues that are more direct emotional communications. And even if they get riled up with each other, they usually settle down after a moderately brief physiological cooling-off period.
When people get riled up, we also require physiological cooling-off (20–30 minutes), but we often sustain our combative tendencies by looping disparaging phrases in our heads about our partners. For mild examples, “What’s the matter with him? Why can’t he just close the door?,” or “Doesn’t she realize that leaving lights on is a waste of energy?” What’s worse, although language is infinitely versatile, it also provides all kinds of room for ambiguity, misinterpretation, and symbolic confusion.
The Dawn of Understanding: Using Language for What Matters Most
Going back to our timeline, if you stretch your hands apart as wide as they can go to represent how long humans have been on the planet, we have only had language for about the length of two or three finger joints. Language is an overlay at the end of that approximately 5 to 6 foot span-–not to mention the other hundreds of millions of years that our biological precursors have been developing other complex bodily responses to environmental threat. Our embodied response to threat — verbal or otherwise — is mediated by the emotional centers of our brains. And this happens at least half a second before we are even aware of it, much less are able to put into words. This is the system that has preserved our ancestors over the course of millions of years.
While language has given us incredible capabilities, we are only just beginning to understand how to use it properly for emotional communication, which is how bonds are formed or broken.
As I’ve pointed out, a start is being able to identify and express our softer emotions to each other, especially variations of fear and sadness. This is one core of what I teach partners to do in couples therapy. (For more on this, see some of my other Medium articles.) A more elaborated approach — which I recommend to many of my couples — is Nonviolent Communication, developed by Marshall Rosenberg. You can learn more about it from his book by the same title.
Good communication is a series of unnatural acts.