Names of all clients have been changed.
It sounds simple enough: for your relationship to succeed you need to communicate with your partner and listen to the concerns that your partner shares with you. And yet, many couples who find themselves in my office, trying to save their failing relationship will admit that they don’t really know how to talk to each other. And certainly not about their feelings!
This is a problem because a relationship without strong communication is like a book without a plot. There’s character, setting, and conflict, but no interaction, growth, or conclusion. It is important that we find ways to become truly involved with our partner’s wants and needs (and invite them into ours) so that both partners can feel known by the person with whom they are building their lives.
Neither you nor your partner are mind readers– even after years together you may not truly know what’s happening inside your partner’s heart and mind. If you don’t share your own thoughts and feelings, you may not feel seen or heard by your partner, which can lead to disconnection and discontent. This, in turn, can lead to conflict or boredom or a relationship that can feel transactional. None of this leaves you feeling loved and alive!
I find that there are three common reasons that couples stop talking to each other.
“Everything is fine!”
I see many couples in my office, where it swiftly becomes apparent that they have an unspoken agreement that things are “good enough”. To acknowledge anything different is implicitly prohibited. When this agreement is in place, the little and big things that emerge in the course of a life that might cause conflict, simply aren’t worth the risk to bring up. There is a fear that acknowledging even a single point of contention could call the whole agreement into question. Though this keeps things simple and pleasant, it establishes the basis of your relationship in avoidance and denial.
Joanne and Aaron have been married for about five years. Both entered the marriage eager to have kids and build a life together. Unfortunately, having children didn’t come easily, and they still haven’t gotten pregnant. Joanne has felt bereft but feels responsible for keeping Aaron upbeat and hopeful. After their first round of IVF wasn’t successful,, when Joanne shared her almost overwhelming feelings of loss, Aaron became despairing and depressed and didn’t want to continue talking about it. Since then, Joanne has only shared that she’s fine. They’re fine. It’s all going to be fine.
It was Aaron who called my office, worried that he and his wife had lost their connection entirely. “It feels like I’m living alone, or with a roommate. I love the woman I married, but I can’t find her anymore.” He was considering divorce but worried that Joanne would think he was divorcing her because she couldn’t have kids. He wanted me to help him explain to Joanne that it wasn’t the fertility problems, but the disconnect.
Aaron was surprised to find that under the guise of “fine”, the woman he loved was still there. The passion of her feelings—her grief, loss, and panic over possibly losing Aaron– took him by surprise and re-ignited their relationship. Through therapy, Joanne and Aaron have found each other again, by learning how to talk about how they truly feel, support each other during times of high emotion, and manage their own feelings as well.
Don’t look at it because then we have to deal with it
They keep their little and big frustrations, hurts, upsets, injuries, and disappointments to themselves. They may also keep their hopes, dreams, wishes, fantasies, and longings to themselves. True, there may be irritation, or even anger and disapproval, demands, complaints, criticisms, even hostilities or contempt exchanged between them. Or there may be distance, isolation, withdrawal, secrecy, withholding, silence, stonewalling, or simply quiet solitude between them. Or there may be a polite, transactional, superficial, pragmatic, collaborative coordinated nature between them as they proceed through their days together.
Brenda and Amory met in high school and have been together for the last 25 years. Because they married and had kids young while Amory was still in Law School, much of their early relationship was about supporting each other in the development of their professional careers. There was enough to talk about to keep the family running– who would pick up the kids? Who was stopping for the groceries? Who would attend the little league games?– that they stopped talking about their own thoughts, feelings, wants, and desires.
As the kids got older, the family stayed quite busy- they did a lot of activities as a couple or including their now teenage kids. They had a full social life and a weekend home. From the outside, it looked like they had it all.
And yet, they entered my office in a crisis of distance, each feeling lonely and isolated in the relationship. Unbeknownst to Brenda, Amory was considering having an affair, and Brenda, busy with work and friends, wasn’t sure why they were still married. They had begun to discuss divorce, in an almost casual way. Their marriage, at its core, was functional: they served as each other’s companions, co-parents, and collaborators on their family’s to-do list, but were painfully lacking in true connection.
Brenda and Amory faced the real possibility of divorce in my office and discovered that they were both interested in staying married if the relationship improved. Together they began to share their real needs, wants, and desires. They explored new hobbies together. Discussed how they would spend their retirement years once the kids were gone. They wanted different things, but the differences were exciting instead of dividing. Though they must rebuild habits of communication over time, they know what they are fighting for.
I don’t know how to talk about my feelings
James was born into a powerful and wealthy family. His parents were generous and supportive, but they were not emotionally available. James was raised largely by staff– he had a full-time caretaker who lived in his home until he was 11– and then he was handed off to tutors and coaches and spent much of his time alone.
“I don’t think anyone asked me how I felt about anything, ever,” James confided in me. He had learned at an early age that his feelings were to be ignored, and so he did.
James’ husband Edgar grew up in a completely opposite kind of home. Surrounded by a large and loud extended family, Edgar felt surrounded by feelings. In fact, he was drawn to James because when they were together everything felt calmer and more stable. James, for his part, was drawn to Edgar’s vibrancy, “He makes me feel alive.”
Eventually, however, James’ inability to talk about how he felt, even about Edgar, began to interfere with their relationship. “I know he loves me, but he can’t seem to say it. And when he’s upset, he just stops talking to me, right when I want to be there for him the most, he shuts me out. I need more from this relationship if we are going to stay together.”
Edgar and James were in therapy with me for about nine months. James learned how to recognize and accept his feelings, and how to share them with Edgar. Edgar came to understand James’ history and tendencies better. Their relationship deepened, and they both got more of what they wanted.
Communication in a relationship is critical
We all wish to be loved and accepted for who we are. We can’t expect others to see us clearly if we don’t share our thoughts and feelings. This is especially true in our relationship with our partner because relationships can feel like a mysterious, tangled web where we are continuously balancing our wants and needs with the wants and needs of our partner. It’s in this balancing, that both partners can feel deeply understood.
Perhaps you don’t know how to begin talking to your partner.
Or perhaps you’ve tried and been rebuffed.
Even when talking about your feelings is difficult, it is worth the effort. Therapy can be a great way to learn how to communicate with each other again, or for the first time. This work can be done in couple therapy or individually.
Reach out to begin this journey; your happiness matters!