A question I often get asked is, “What is the most common issue you see in couples therapy?” The answer without a doubt is communication issues. Couple after couple attend couples therapy and report that they have trouble communicating. Therapists see common communication issues among couples that are the result of unhealthy and detrimental patterns and cycles, generally stemming from avoiding conflict or having trouble resolving an argument or disagreement (conflict avoidance and conflict resolution). Here are three common communication issues seen in couples therapy:
- “I feel like we can’t talk about anything without it turning into a huge argument or blow-up.”
Couples who come in because they cannot stop arguing are definitely not conflict avoidant, but they may have trouble knowing when to stop, take a break (or a “time-out”), and reconvene when both have cooled off. In therapy, we discuss how to better approach your partner about an issue, and how to use active listening skills to actually hear what your partner is saying. When we listen to our partners, we can respond instead of react. When you’re hearing your partner talk about something that’s hard, it is up to you to self-soothe and manage your fears, anger, and anxiety. It is also important to utilize the “time-out” tool when arguments get heated, and come back to discuss once you both individually calm down and self-soothe.
- “In order to prevent a disagreement, we’ve just stopped communicating completely. I feel like we never talk.”
When two people enter a relationship who are both conflict-avoidant, it can cause all kinds of built-up issues and resentment. People who are conflict-avoidant have often learned this over time, whether it’s in their personal relationship or from their family of origin. They often have a deep sense of, “If I bring something up I’m unhappy about, you may leave me.” When conflict-avoidant couples enter couples therapy, it can be a long process of creating a safe space for each to feel comfortable discussing their grievances and concerns in the relationship. If you are prone to conflict-avoidance, it may be helpful to schedule weekly check-ins about the relationship, or as I call them with couples I work with, “pow-wows”. Having something already scheduled on the calendar will help remove the issue of who initiates the uncomfortable dialogue.
- “Whenever I bring something up, he/she shuts down, and nothing ever gets solved.”
This is one of the most common couples dynamics that I see. Couples therapists refer to this dynamic as the “pursuer and distancer” cycle. This cycle occurs when you have one person from each of the above examples in a relationship together: one who is conflict-avoidant and one who is more assertive or aggressive with speaking their mind. When I see a couple with this communication cycle, I will often draw it out for them on a piece of paper and show how each person’s response contributes to the cycle. Then we will discuss how each person could approach and respond differently that will be more effective. A great place to start is to have the pursuer have a calm, respectful, and compassionate approach with their partner, and for the distancer partner to show that he/she has listened by acknowledging the issue and asking for time to process before responding. It is then up to the distancer to come back to their partner and re-engage.
Each of the above communication issues are very common among couples. However, each does require more in-depth analysis and understanding which is done in couples therapy, and is often not a “quick-fix”. If you are experiencing trouble in your communication with your partner, it may be helpful to consult a couples therapist.
(Reblogged by author; original post at Symmetry Counseling.)