By Richard Nicastro, Ph.D.
You’ve probably heard or read about the virtues of effective communication for creating and maintaining a healthy marriage or relationship. Effective couples communication helps to create emotional pathways that join the couple, pathways that foster a deeper experience of mutual understanding and connectedness. This communication often involves words, but it can also involve touch, shared laughter, glances or mutual gazing, attuning to one another’s emotional experiences, and sex. In short, words are just one means of communicating and connecting.
Chronic breakdowns in communication disrupt these pathways by creating an emotional wedge within the relationship. Over time, if these failures in communication aren’t resolved, if misunderstandings continue to feed insecurities and the emotional turmoil that results, then the fall-out can ultimately pull a couple apart for good.
One of the problematic patterns I see with couples has to do with successful communication attempts by one partner to meet the needs of the other, attempts that, however, are only temporary and peter out at some point.
When this occurs, the distressed partner (the speaker in this case) usually communicates his/her needs and concerns to the other partner (the listener) who appears to understand the problem being addressed. As a result, some positive change usually follows (the listener is more responsive regarding the particular issue that was addressed by the speaker), but as time passes, the listener’s attempts to meet his partner’s needs fade and the old, problematic pattern resurfaces (much to the chagrin of the other partner).
This pattern is particularly troubling since the speaker (who is somewhat distressed in the first place) often becomes hopeful about the initial, positive changes the other partner is making—and, as a result, s/he becomes more hopeful about the relationship. The greater our hope, the more emotionally open we allow ourselves to become with another (our defensive-protective wall typically shrinks as hope expands), so when the problem pattern reemerges (when the listener becomes less and less responsive), there is a heightened vulnerability to greater emotional wounding than there might have been prior to the ephemeral change.
As one woman described this issue in relation to her boyfriend’s drinking, “Just when I was starting to trust that Troy wouldn’t drink again after promising to stop and not drinking for four months, he came home smelling like alcohol. I was devastated.” She went on to say that it would have been easier to cope if Troy hadn’t stopped drinking because she would have not expected anything more from him and their future. “I wouldn’t have had false hope,” she added. I wouldn’t have let my guard down.”
In many of the cases I work with, the person who is responding to the complaint of his/her partner is motivated, at least initially, to change (address the issue) in order to please the upset partner—often the subtext in the discussion is, “I’ll do what you are requesting because I love you and want you to be happy.” Wanting to please your partner is a powerful motivator for change, yet it doesn’t always lead to lasting change. Why might this be?
One possible reason that change doesn’t last is when one partner stretches him/herself too far past their emotional/behavior base rate—for instance, an introvert trying to become more extroverted; a relatively quiet partner trying to be very verbose; someone with low energy trying to engage in too many high energy activities. This, of course, doesn’t mean we’re not able to change and shouldn’t be willing to push and challenge ourselves for one another. But when the change we try to make takes us leaps and bounds from our authentic selves (way past our comfort zone), then the chances are greater that the change made will be difficult to sustain over the long haul (no matter how much you love your partner).
With this in mind, it’s important not to over-promise what you are willing (and capable) of doing for each other and the sake of the marriage/relationship. Be realistic, know your limits, and get any support you might require to keep promised changes moving forward. I often encourage couples to make small changes in order to increase success and get a positive momentum established.
Another pattern I see that leads to a back-slide in positive changes has to do with losing sight of how significant a particular issue is to the other person. When your partner confronts you or complains about something, the emotional energy that surrounds his/her message tags what is being said or asked as particularly important (after all, if it wasn’t important, s/he wouldn’t be upset). Often it is the emotional energy behind the message that awakens us to change course—when our partner is sad or upset or angry because of something we’ve done or aren’t doing, it is the emotional reaction behind his/her words that propels us into some kind of action.
And, as would be expected, when you are more responsive to your partner, s/he will begin feeling increasingly secure and the intensity of his/her feelings will settle. As time passes it is during these moments of “OK-ness” where couples often get sloppy and forgetful. Once the relationship landscape is peaceful, once everyone is feeling peacefully ensconced within shared emotional security, it is easy to lose sight of the initial, problematic conditions that led you to change your behavior. And without this vigilance, without you remaining aware of what upset your partner in the past, it’s easy to allow complacency to enter into the picture. And one of the negatives about complacency is that it shuts down the empathic appreciation needed to be sensitive to your partner’s concerns and vulnerabilities.
We all become complacent from time to time. But when your complacency creates a roller coaster of painful feelings in your partner, when your improvements are repeatedly short-lived, then the very foundation of trust starts to erode and at some point, the relationship becomes a series of painful events with brief moments of quiet. I’ve seen many marriages and relationships end because of this distressing pattern.
The goal and challenge for all of us is to remember that it is the quiet after the storm (periods of apparent resolution following conflict or some difficult communication/feedback) that requires our utmost vigilance and ongoing responsiveness. It’s all too easy to relax in these moments and forget what you each so desperately want and yearn for from each other—a sustained responsiveness that allows for greater emotional openness and the emotional intimacy that follows.