Communicating About Communication

When couples come to counseling, at least one person will complain about the "poor communication" in the relationship.  This article debunks some of the myths and misconceptions about "poor communication" and examines some of the common sources, varieties and challenges of the communication difficulties couple are likely to face.

In my long career helping couples improve the quality of their relationship, I've come to expect certain problems to consistently emerge as an important issues to address. For example, one frequent complaint of at least one person in a relationship is "poor communication". The ability of two people to simply talk with each other in a productive and positive manner can be extremely challenging for a variety of reasons.

To start with, many people did not grow up in a family that modeled good communication skills. One or both parents may have been emotionally withholding, excessively critical, or loudly argumentative; they may have frequently given confusing or contradictory mixed messages; maybe there was little meaningful conversation at all. Verbally abusive styles of communication are unfortunately present in some families, including easily recognizable forms such as threatening, blaming and name-calling as well as many of the more subtle types such as discounting, diverting, undermining and countering, all of which can continue through to the next generation.

It takes courage and humility for a person to recognize when and how he or she is using ineffective and often disrespectful styles of communication with a partner. Part of relationship skills training involves learning healthier interaction patterns so that conflicts are resolved quicker, more effectively and with stronger feelings of mutual warmth and respect.

Another situation I often encounter is when "poor communication" could more accurately be described as "under communication". Many couples simply don't talk enough to each other. Busy days are filled with time-consuming obligations so that both partners are tired by the time they are back together. The television often becomes a major "space and time filler" that prevents the opportunity for deeper communication to develop. To top it off, simple conflict avoidance turns many relationships into quiet zones. Effective communication consultation such as the type I regularly provide can help couples improve both the quality and quantity of productive dialog.

Of course, another unfortunate reality is that many men are especially uncomfortable with talking about their feelings. There's a old joke that the five words a man most hates to hear are "honey, we need to talk." As a man, I am intimately familiar with the challenges males face when trying to communicate with their partners, especially with those who are more emotionally literate. The reasons for these gender-based differences are both biological and psychological, but the good news is that even slight improvements can yield significant positive returns for both men and women.

And finally, when some couples say they have communication problems it may simply mean that they disagree with each other on one or more important topics. Healthy communication doesn't always mean that two people will share the same goals, desires or perspectives. Another important component of enhancing relationship functioning is to strengthen ways to honor differences of opinion and interest and not always see disagreements as threats to intimacy. There's a humorous yet wise old saying that if two people always agree, one of them is unnecessary!

So the bottom line is that the common complaint among couples of "communication problems" can mean all kinds of different things and stem from many different sources. The fact that this concern is such a common source of dissatisfaction means that you have a lot of company if you struggle in this area with your "significant other". A counselor or relationship consultant such as myself can help you to quickly improve your effective communication skills to the great benefit of both you and all of the important people in your life.


Bill Herring LCSW, CSAT is an Atlanta counselor, therapist and consultant in private practice since 1991.  He limits his practice to situations involving problematic sexual behavior.  Appointment requests can be made by calling or using this form.