The Couples Communication Myth


“Every love relationship rests on an unwritten agreement unthinkingly concluded by the lovers in the first weeks of their love. They are still in a kind of dream but at the same time, without knowing it, are drawing up, like uncompromising lawyers, the detailed clauses of their contract. O lovers! Be careful in those dangerous first days! Once you’ve brought breakfast in bed you’ll have to bring it forever, unless you want to be accused of lovelessness and betrayal.” -Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

At the initial session with a couple, almost invariably, one of the partners says that the reason they are coming in for treatment is that there is a problem with their communication. Yet couples are communicating all of the time and often what they are communicating is being transmitted in what is not said. The communication starts unconsciously and at the very beginning.

Do you ever wonder how you picked your partner in the first place? Maybe there was an inexplicable spark or a familiarity. Maybe you said to yourself (or even to them), “I know we just met, but it feels like I’ve known you all my life.” What we don’t know is that when we meet someone and hit it off, there are inner parts of ourselves that are hitting it off too. The way that the inner parts work, however, can look like a sort of exchange or a presentation of “gifts” (quotes used because these gifts can become burdens later on). I imagine these parts of ourselves as parcels or boxes. Partner A: “Here’s one labeled NEEDY. I don’t like NEEDY. Can you hold NEEDY for me?” Partner B responds: “Sure thing. I don’t mind holding NEEDY for you. You know, maybe since I took NEEDY, you can have CONTROL?” Sometimes, this can look like “opposites attract.” So, as Mr. Kundera wrote, in the very beginning, there is an unwritten agreement about who will be what, and it goes beyond breakfast in bed. There are other ways that these inner parts interact, to be sure, and this is just one example, but I have always found it so fascinating when seemingly “different” people come together. What a nice and neat arrangement, for us to hold those things we could not tolerate within ourselves.

By the time we see couples, the perfectly imperfect person that made your heart skip a beat is now making that heart hurt.

“All I ever wanted was intimacy, yet I married the coldest person in the world!”

“How did she turn into my mother?!”

“Ever since she had the baby, it’s like I don’t even exist, I don’t even matter.”

Is better communication going to solve the relationship problems and convey what is really being said, what is really being not said? Communication skill-building can be helpful, but may be more beneficial if we are dealing with a coworker or boss. What is happening in an intimate relationship beneath the conscious surface is a lot more complex than getting Sue in accounting to recycle the coffee pods. If you and your partner are interested in exploring what is truly behind the arguments, why you seem to be going through the same patterns, why you may find yourselves recreating the earliest relationship you were a witness to (usually your parents, whether they were together or not) even though you swore to yourself that that would never happen, working psychodynamically can help you have greater insight and make lasting changes. Meeting with a clinician can help you make connections for better understanding and a more fulfilling intimacy in your relationship and this, in turn, can help each partner live a happier and healthier life overall.

By Marcella Haro