One of the more common reasons couples come in for counseling is poor communication.
What they usually mean by this is there is a conflict that often never gets resolved. Partners will often walk away from such arguments feeling hopeless and not knowing what to do. These “dances” that couples get into often feel like the other partner simple isn't getting it.
Partners will often feel uncared for, rejected, or attacked. When a dance is happening, couples just make the same moves they always make thinking it will result in a different outcome. What needs to happen is a different move.
All of us are born with an innate desire or need to connect. You find this so obviously with a child and his parents. At such an early age, a child is learning to get needs met by his mother. The needs are very basic, such as the need to be held. When the need is met the child feels safe, happy, and connected. If this basic need is not met, the child will begin to realize this and become insecure, afraid, and start to make attempts to reengage and reestablish this severed connection.
Watch any toddler who wants to be held by mommy start to lift his hands up, make gestures by clinging closely to mom, and if mommy still doesn’t pick him up or engage him, the child will make greater attempts by crying and sometimes screaming.
These basic needs don’t end in childhood. We as humans continue to have needs in adulthood, and transfer these needs to our significant relationships. The need for connection is great and when we sense that we are not connected that internal alarm starts to go off. We feel it and we then, like a child, make attempts to reengage our partners in connection.
We will become angry, we start to make accusations, and we start to yell to get the attention of our partner. This is our way of saying, “I am lonely, I need you, please come near.” However, that is not what our partners hear.
When we are trying to communicate our need for connection, it often gets lost in our nonverbal communication. Think about the phrase, “I am sorry.” Now, say that same phrase but put a different tone to how you say it. The words never change but the meaning does. Saying sorry, isn't about what has been said, but how it has been said.
Factor in your body language, eye contact, and facial expression; all these influence the meaning and expression of the words. This is exactly what happens with couples when they are distressed in their relationship.
Oftentimes in relationships, when couples are distressed they go into self-protect mode. This protectiveness does a few things. They protect the person from getting hurt, but they also prevent the person from connecting which is what he truly wants. Couples end up getting stuck in the dance and they drift further apart.
What changes this is when couples are able to access their vulnerability. Vulnerability is what creates connection. No one ever feels attacked or the need to defend when the other is being vulnerable. What I often see, is when one is vulnerable the partner will often lean in instead of pull away.
In those heated moments when you feel the need to protect or attack, remember that vulnerability is the starting place to rebuild connection. If we can communicate in vulnerability we can begin to really hear what the other person is saying and communicate in such a way that our partner can truly hear our hearts as well.
Bio: Rick Manabat is the clinic manager for the MTS Counseling Center. He graduated from Trinity International University with a masters in mental health counseling, and is a certified sex addiction therapist (CSAT). He is a native of Chicago, is married, and has three children.