Margaret Paul, Ph.d. asked:
When partners are having problems, they often say that the problem is communication. What exactly does this mean? What are they trying to communicate?
There are various reasons for communicating:
1. Sometimes we communicate to offer information about ourselves, such as, “I’m going out for a walk,” or “The dinner reservations are for 7:00.”
2. Sometimes we communicate to ask for help with tasks, such as, “I need to move the couch to clean under it and I can’t lift it. Would you help me?”
3. Sometimes we communicate to learn something about the other person, such as “Please help me to understand why you are feeling upset with me. I care about you and I really want to understand.”
4. Sometimes we communicate to ask for help regarding ourselves, such as, “I’m feeling very anxious and I don’t know why. Would you talk with me for awhile? Maybe if I talk about it I will understand it.”
For the most part, these forms of communication do not cause problems, unless there is an ulterior motive. An ulterior occurs when the intention of the communication is to have some control over the other person. When the intent of the above communications is to offer information, ask for help, or to learn, then there will likely not be problems. But these same communications can be spoken with an intent to control. The intent to control will be communicated through a harsh or judgmental tone of voice and through a hard, closed energy.
For example, “I’m going from a walk!” said with anger, has behind it an intent to control the other person through punishment. The real communication is “You have behaved in a way that is unacceptable to me so I am punishing you by withdrawing from you.” “The dinner reservations are for 7:00,” can be said in a tone that says, “…and you better be there.”
Asking for help in moving the couch can be either a request or a demand, depending upon the intent. A request can be answered, “Sorry, I’m really busy right now. I will help you later,” without repercussions. When the same thing is said as a demand, the other person is not allowed to say no without negative consequences.
You can ask someone why he or she is upset with you from a true desire to learn, or from an intent to control. When your intent is to control, you will likely argue with whatever the person says, trying to talk him or her out of the upset.
When you are upset, you can ask for help because you really do want to learn and take responsibility for your feelings, or because you want the other person to fix you, to take care of you, to rescue you. People often want to communicate their feelings to get the other person to change, rather than to learn and take responsibility for their feelings.
Problems with communication will always occur when the intent is to control. So when clients of mine say, “We can’t communicate,” I immediately know that one or both of them are coming from an intent to control in their communications. They are intent on trying to get the other person to change.
The intent to control often creates power struggles in relationships. While most people certainly want to be in control, they do not want to be controlled. So when one person is coming from the intent to control, the other person may respond with resistance. Power struggles result when one person behaves in a controlling way and the other person resists being controlled.
When one person is intent on controlling and the other gives in to keep the peace, it may seem like the relationship is working. However, the compliant person is often covertly angry and may resist in an other area, such as sexually. When you give yourself up to avoid conflict, you generally resent the person you give yourself up to, which doesn’t create the emotional intimacy necessary to feel sexually intimate.
Next time you want to communicate with your partner, ask yourself, “Why do I want to communicate?” If you discover that you are wanting to get the other person to change, consider doing your own inner work instead – deciding how to take care of yourself instead of trying to get your partner to change. You might discover that you get a far better result!