I feel bad for marital communication, because it gets blamed for everything. For generations, in survey after survey, couples have rated marital communication as the number-one problem in marriage. It’s not.
Marital communication is getting a bad rap
It’s like the kid who fights on the playground. The playground supervisors hear a commotion and turn their heads just in time to see his retaliation. He didn’t create the problem; he was reacting to the problem. But he’s the one who gets caught, so he’s sent off to the principal’s office.
Or, in the case of marital communication, the therapist’s office.
I feel bad for marital communication, because everyone gangs up on him, when the truth is, on the playground of marriage, he’s just reacting to one of the other troublemakers who started the fight:
- We marry people because we like who they are. People change. Plan on it. Don’t marry someone because of who they are, or who you want them to become. Marry them because of who they are determined to become. And then spend a lifetime joining them in their becoming, as they join you in yours.
- Marriage doesn’t take away our loneliness. To be alive is to be lonely. It’s the human condition. Marriage doesn’t change the human condition. And when it doesn’t, we blame our partner for doing something wrong, or we go searching for companionship elsewhere. Marriage is intended to be a place where two humans share the experience of loneliness and, in the sharing, create moments in which the loneliness dissipates. For a little while.
- Shame baggage. Yes, we all carry it. We spend most of our adolescence and early adulthood trying to pretend our shame doesn’t exist, so when the person we love triggers it in us, we blame them for creating it. And then we demand they fix it. But the truth is, they didn’t create it and they can’t fix it. Sometimes the best marital therapy is individual therapy, in which we work to heal our own shame. So we can stop transferring it to the ones we love.
- Ego wins. We’ve all got one. We came by it honestly. Probably sometime around the fourth grade when kids started to be jerks to us. Maybe earlier if our family members were jerks first. The ego was a good thing. It kept us safe from the emotional slings and arrows. But now that we’re grown and married, the ego is a wall that separates. It’s time for it to come down. By practicing openness instead of defensiveness, forgiveness instead of vengeance, apology instead of blame, vulnerability instead of strength, and grace instead of power.
- Life is messy and marriage is life. So marriage is messy, too. But when things stop working perfectly, we start blaming our partner for the snags. We add unnecessary mess to the already inescapable mess of life and love. We must stop pointing fingers and start intertwining them. And then we can walk into – and through – the mess of life together. Blameless and shameless.
- Empathy is hard. By its very nature, empathy cannot happen simultaneously between two people. One partner must always go first, and there’s no guarantee of reciprocation. It takes risk. It’s a sacrifice. So most of us wait for our partner to go first. A lifelong empathy standoff. And when one partner actually does take the empathy plunge, it’s almost always a belly flop. The truth is, the people we love are fallible human beings and they will never be the perfect mirror we desire. Can we love them anyway, by taking the empathy plunge ourselves?
- We care more about our children than about the one who helped us make them. Our kids should never be more important than our marriage, and they should never be less important. If they’re more important, the little rascals will sense it and drive wedges. If they’re less important, they’ll act out until they are given priority. Family is about the constant, ongoing work of finding the balance.
- The hidden power struggle. Most conflict in marriage is at least in part a negotiation around the level of interconnectedness between lovers. Men usually want less. Women usually want more. Sometimes, those roles are reversed. Regardless, when you read between the lines of most fights, this is the question you find: Who gets to decide how much distance we keep between us? If we don’t ask that question explicitly, we’ll fight about it implicitly. Forever.
- We don’t know how to maintain interest in one thing or one person anymore. We live in a world pulling our attention in a million different directions. The practice of meditation – attending to one thing and then returning our attention to it when we become distracted, over and over and over again – is an essential art. When we are constantly encouraged to attend to the shiny surface of things and to move on when we get a little bored, making our life a meditation upon the person we love is a revolutionary act. And it is absolutely essential if any marriage is to survive and thrive.
It takes a lifetime
As a therapist, I can teach a couple how to communicate in an hour. It’s not complicated. But dealing with the troublemakers who started the fight? Well, that takes a lifetime. And yet.
It’s a lifetime that forms us into people who are becoming ever more loving versions of ourselves, who can bear the weight of loneliness, who have released the weight of shame, who have traded in walls for bridges, who have embraced the mess of being alive, who risk empathy and forgive disappointments, who love everyone with equal fervor, who give and take and compromise, and who have dedicated themselves to a lifetime of presence and awareness and attentiveness.
And that’s a lifetime worth fighting for.
Used with permission. Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing outside of Chicago, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly at drkellyflanagan.com about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. He is the author of The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoy learning from them how to be a kid again.