Chapter 5: Communication: Key To Creative Closeness
If there is any one indispensable insight with which a young married couple should begin their life together, it is that they should try to keep open, at all cost, the lines of communication between them.
Reuel L. Howe, Herein Is Love (1)
Communication is the means by which relating takes place. Its quality determines how a relationship is established and whether it is continued or terminated. Good communication is the ability to transmit and receive meanings; it is the instrument for achieving that mutual
understanding which is at the heart of marital intimacy. Words are not the only communicators. The wife who responds to her husband's end-of-the-day greeting with cold silence conveys a powerful message, as surely as though she had used an angry verbal outburst. Communication in any close relationship occurs on literally dozens of levels simultaneously. One way to measure the depth of a relationship is by the number of levels on which communication can take place. The message pathways between and among people have been likened to telephone lines with intertwined wires of various colors. Some carry ideas, some carry feelings, some carry the behind-the-scenes involvements which have brought the relationship to its present status and which color any subsequent communicational interchange.
Suppose the same wife greets her returning husband with the words, "I thought you'd never come home." Her husband hears her words, but also receives simultaneously several other messages. There is the tone of her voice and its inflection: is it a whine or a caress? Her facial expression and the movement of her body tell him something: is she smiling or frowning? Does she turn her back or reach out to him? Whatever the husband believes to have been the meaning of similar remarks in the past also colors the quality of the message. This is the pattern and relationship context. The fact that this is a marriage relationship also influences his interpretation of the message -- the same statement from his employer would have a different meaning. There is also the implied expectation in his wife's remark, sometimes called the "demand quality" of communication.
What response is she expecting from him? An apology for being late? A return caress such as, "I missed you, too"? An attack: "Can't you let me live my own life?" Or is she asking for a lingering embrace. At the same time, the husband's own experiences since he left his wife that morning help to determine how he will receive his wife's greeting. Thus, it becomes obvious that even the simplest communication is a complicated exchange. The husband's ability to understand his wife's greeting depends on his ability at that moment to sort out and weigh the multilevel messages he receives.
Meantime the wife is also required to translate the many cues she is getting from her husband.
Communication is always a two-way street. Both husband and wife are simultaneously sending and receiving messages. Her statement can probably be understood only in the context of what happened between them before he went to work that day. The husband also sends several nonverbal messages as he enters the front door. The time he gets home, the way he walks, the droop or set of his shoulders, his greeting both verbal and nonverbal -- all must be interpreted by the wife even as he is interpreting her messages. The meaning of a remark in a continuing relationship cannot be separated from the net-work of communication in the total relationship as it extends over time. Communication has a circular character with each person behaving and responding in part according to what each has become through interacting with the other over a period of time. A particular interchange, positive or negative, is the product of complicated relating, which in an ongoing relationship follows a predictable pattern.
The ability to communicate in mutually affirming ways is the fundamental skill which is essential to the growth of marital intimacy. Marriage provides an opportunity for multilevel exchanges of meaning. It provides the opportunity for communicating at increasingly deep levels about the things that matter most to husband and wife.
In order to strengthen communication in a marriage, a couple needs to learn to use the varied lines through which the messages and meanings are transmitted. There are many ways to say, "I love you!" A fond glance, a tender or playful touch in an appropriate spot, a thoughtful gift, choosing to sit close in a crowded room, listening with genuine interest, a kiss on the back of the neck, a note, perhaps with a private joke, left where it will be found, a word of sympathy or support, a sly wink, preparing a favorite dish, a bowl of flowers carefully arranged, a phone call in the middle of the day, and even, perhaps, remembering to take out the trash are but a few. A part of the joy of marriage is this opportunity to develop an almost endless variety of transmission lines for the meanings that are important to each partner.
Another step in improving communication in marriage is for both partners to learn to listen more fully. A complaint that is frequently heard in marriage counseling is: "My husband (wife) doesn't listen to me," or "What I say goes in one ear and out the other." The meaning of "not listening" varies, depending on the couple. It may be a passive-aggressive husband (or wife) who "turns off his hearing aid," to block the manipulating, demanding behavior of his spouse which he is afraid to resist openly. Or it may be that husband and wife are so busy with concern each for his own unmet needs that neither can hear the other's pain. The husband may be worried about his job because of the events of the day. The wife is feeling lonely and frustrated because she has been cooped up with the children all day and needs some warmth and love from an intimate adult. She interprets her husband's worry and preoccupation as a rejection of herself, while at the same time he interprets her reaching out to him as another demand which he cannot meet. Each is immediately lost in protecting him-self from the further hurt which is expected, and cannot stop to wonder what the other is really feeling. Such distortions in receiving messages produce a maelstrom of misunderstanding. The husband has sent a message: he is worried about his job.
The wife mis-perceives its meaning: she feels rejected. She responds with a message based on the mis-perception: an angry accusation. Now he feels rejected and misunderstood. If neither is able to take the initiative in interrupting the cycle by saying, "What's really going on here?" or by communicating warmth and caring, the chain of distortions may be compounded until all hope of understanding has evaporated.
What is needed here is deep listening. Such listening is seeing the world through another person's eyes. It is "walking awhile in the other fellow's moccasins." It is being led on an unfamiliar pathway while someone is pointing out the significant features of the landscape. It is watching a flower-bud blossom slowly through time-lapse photography. It is the confidence that what is now only partly heard and understood will eventually be more fully known.(2)
Gabriel Marcel has said that there is "a way of listening which is a way of refusing -- of refusing oneself -- and there is a way of listening which is a way of giving -- of self giving."(3) To really listen to another means both giving oneself and being willing to receive the other within oneself.
Such listening in depth is essential for both partners if there is to be depth sharing in a marriage. Paul Toumier writes:
Deep sharing is overwhelming, and very rare. A thousand fears keep us in check. First of all there is the fear of breaking down, of crying. There is especially the fear that the other will not sense the tremendous importance with which this memory or feeling is charged. How painful it is when such a difficult sharing falls flat, upon ears either preoccupied or mocking, ears in any case that do not sense the significance of what we're saying. It may happen between man and wife. The partner who has thus spoken in a very personal way without being understood falls back into a terrible emotional solitude.(4)
When self-esteem is low and needs are high, true listening may be experienced as a frightening invasion of one's inner world. If one listens one may hear criticism of oneself. Or he may hear a demand that he cannot meet, or be required to change a preconceived notion or opinion. Fears of the closeness we all want but resist may get in the way of listening. "If I really listen to him, then he may really listen to me, and then I will be known as I really am." It is difficult to listen if one is afraid of becoming aware of his own feelings which threaten his self-image, or if he fears blame or advice from the other.
If a couple is not severely crippled in its communication skills, the ability of each to listen can improve with both partners working at it together. Central in this process is what is known as "checking out meanings." The point at which communication frequently breaks down is not in the speaking or the listening, per se, but in failing to check frequently to see if one really hears and understands what the other means, feels, and intends. Many messages in marriages, as well as elsewhere, are ambiguous. The simple process of checking out meanings by asking questions such as, "Do I hear you correctly?" or "Is this what you are saying?" can break up some of the log-jams in communication that grow rapidly otherwise. When a person talks, is silent, listens superficially, doesn't listen at all, or listens in depth, he is communicating something. The best way for each person to keep in touch with what the other is feeling is to check out meanings regularly.
There is something more basic in marital communication than simply saying and hearing words accurately. Communication is more than a problem in mechanics. What is fundamental is the willingness to consider each other's point of view; this willingness is rooted in a degree of mutual respect. Two people can say and even understand an endless flow of words back and forth between them. But unless each cares enough about what the other is saying, and about what his own words mean to the other, communication will not occur, except perhaps on a surface level. Caring about what another person says and thinks and feels is, of course, the same as caring about that person as a person.
Once a couple has set about learning really to listen, there are a number of road signs for which they can watch that point the way to satisfying communication. One of these has been touched on above. It is the importance of checking out meanings. Virginia Satir says that "a person who communicates in a functional way can: a. firmly state his case, b. yet at the same time clarify and qualify what he says, c. as well as ask for feedback, d. and be receptive to feedback when he gets it."(5) Couples frequently have difficulty when they assume that the other knows or should know
what is wanted. "If my husband really cared, he'd know what I need." This wife expects her husband to be a mind-reader. The magical expectation is that somehow he will know what she de- sires. Her anger when her needs are not met is in response to her unrealistic expectation. Checking out meanings is especially important when one or the other does not respond verbally to a message sent. It is impossible not to communicate something, if one is in a relationship and still breathing. Complete silence, for example, is often a way of communicating anger or of saying, "My needs are not being met!" or "I'm keeping my distance from you!" The trouble with silent communication is that it tends to be ambiguous, like a Rorschach inkblot. People project their own inner feelings and attitudes onto the silent person and respond in terms of these. What is projected may have little resemblance to the person's actual feelings.
The process of checking out meaning can help both partners to improve the ways in which they send messages and their skill in listening. The effort to find out what the other really means and feels, affirms him and says in a nonverbal way, "You are important to me."
Another road to productive communication is for both husband and wife to learn the skill of saying it straight. Each person can help the other to understand by asking himself, "Am I saying what I really mean?" This involves learning to be aware of what one is actually feeling and developing the ability to put the feeling clearly into words. Direct rather than devious, specific rather than generalized statements are required. A wife criticizes her husband as he sits at the breakfast table hidden behind his newspaper, "I wish you wouldn't always slurp your coffee."
What she really means is, "I feel hurt when you hide in the newspaper instead of talking to me." Saying it straight involves being honest about negative as well as positive feelings, and being able to state them in a non- attacking way: "I feel . . .", rather than "You are. . . ." Some risk is required in the beginning of this kind of communication, until both husband and wife can trust the relationship enough to be able to say what they really mean.
James Farmer tells a story about a woman who acquired wealth and decided to have a book written about her genealogy. The well-known author she engaged for the assignment discovered that one of her grandfathers had been electrocuted in Sing Sing. When he said it would have to be included in the book, she pleaded for a way of saying it that would hide the truth. When the book appeared, it read as follows: "One of her grandfathers occupied the chair of applied electricity in one of America's best known institutions. He was very much attached to his position and literally died in the harness."(6) The meaning in some attempts to communicate between marriage partners is almost as hidden and confusing. It is usually better to "say it like it is," gently if necessary, but clearly. (We are not suggesting that all secrets be confessed. The help of a well-trained counselor may be needed to help one decide if and when secrets which might damage the relationship, should be confessed. )
Becoming aware of one's own, and learning to translate the other's coded and conflicted messages are steps along the path to good communication. Feelings and thoughts of which an individual is unaware or incompletely aware are often communicated in non-verbal ways. Such messages are often hard to decode because they are derived from underlying conflicting feelings in the communicators. Conflicted messages get conflicted or confusing responses, or no response at all. On a verbal level, a wife says loving things and in various ways indicates that she is feeling amorous; but on a behavior level she sends another and contradictory message by being careless about personal cleanliness in a way that drives her husband away. All of us send such contradictory messages occasionally simply because we all have conflicted feelings. It helps to resolve this block if couples can help each other to bring such conflicts out into the open and discuss them. In this case, the wife discovered through marriage counseling that her inner conflicts about herself as a woman with sexual needs and feelings were expressing themselves nonverbally.
Decoding messages (verbal and nonverbal) is a useful skill in marriage. The hidden or implicit messages which destroy rather than cultivate relationship are usually critical, attacking, or condescending. A couple which says, "We just can't communicate!" usually is sending a barrage of messages that attack each other's self-esteem. The attack may occur in the words said or in the disguised message behind the words. "She won't communicate" may mean, "She won't say what I want her to say." Nagging may be a way of saying, "You're not giving me what I want in this relationship." The wife who interrupts constantly may actually be saying, "Pay more attention to me." The couple that can become aware of the meaning of their nonverbal and coded messages can often prevent a serious cycle of mutual attack and need-deprivation from beginning.
Karen had been involved a considerable part of the day in a perplexing decision involving her parents. As she worried and wondered about it, she thought how good it would be to talk the whole matter over with her husband when he returned that evening. But when he got home from work, his self-esteem was a bit frazzled from the day; consequently, when Karen opened the subject, Jack immediately stated curtly, "Why don't you stop worrying about that and just do the obvious thing? It's silly to knock yourself out about it!" The message, between as well as on the lines, which Jack transmitted to his wife was critical and condescending. It lacked awareness of what she was feeling. Consequently, this response terminated conversation abruptly.
Later, when Karen and Jack were able to talk more dispassionately, she was able to tell him that the feelings that she picked up in his words were these: "The solution is obvious and why are you so stupid you can't see that it is? Stop dragging me into your squabbles with your neurotic family!" As they talked. Jack explained that he was feeling "beat" as a result of a trying day at the office and that her timing -- confronting him with her problem the minute he stepped through the door -- elicited a response from him which did not really represent his major feelings about the problem of her parents.
Relatively healthy couples like Karen and Jack can usually learn to decipher and unscramble their hidden and conflicted messages; through practice they can learn to send clear, unambiguous messages which contribute to mutual empathy.
Of course, not all coded messages are negative. The husband who brings his wife a bottle of perfume "for no reason at all" probably is saying, "I love you! You're an attractive woman! I like being married to you!" As someone has said, when a man brings his wife a present for no reason, there is a reason! Couples whose nonverbal communication is on a positive level most of the time are continually saying to each other, "I care."
COMMUNICATION AND CONFLICT
"A relationship which spells closeness also spells conflict".(7) Some conflict, unhappiness, frustration, and anger are inherent and inescapable in every marriage relationship simply because they are in the fabric of all human relationships. Marriage is like other human relationships, only more so. That is, marriage is the most difficult and the most demanding, but also the most potentially rewarding of all human relationships, because it is potentially the most intimate. Because it is the most intimate, it also holds the greatest potential for conflict.
Conflict in itself is not a block to intimacy. People who feel strongly about each other are bound to fight occasionally. A man who described himself as a "teacher of human relations" was being interviewed on a radio program. The major selling point for his course was, "My wife and I have been married for forty years and we have never had a fight." The interviewer's remark was, "Isn't it sort of dull?" The interviewer knew more about human relations than did the teacher of human relations. Either the marriage has died of indifference and is no more than two people in possession of a marriage license, or all strong feelings have gone underground because of the fear of anger. Couples who can learn to value their conflicts can use them to improve the communication skills which make possible the growth of intimacy. Anything alive experiences struggle and conflict. A couple can learn to learn from their fights; they can learn how to keep them from becoming physically or emotionally destructive, how to interrupt them sooner and how to grow closer because of them. Intimacy grows when conflicts are faced and worked through in the painful but fulfilling process of gradual understanding and compromise of differences.
Democratic marriages in which the couple strives to develop a basic spirit of mutual respect and equality tend to bring conflict to the surface and out into the open where it can be wrestled with. Temporary estrangement during periods of need-deprivation resulting from unresolved conflict is par for the course in even the most effective marriages. The experience of many couples confirms a statement by Terentius, a playwright of ancient Rome: "Great love was never lost by small quarrels. Love after the quarrel was greater than before."(8)
Conflict often produces a distancing cycle in a marriage. The need-deprivation causes anger and attack, which results in counter-attack and the increase of interpersonal distance, which in turn produces greater need-deprivation and greater anger. Relatively healthy couples usually interrupt this cycle after the mutual attack has given them an opportunity to drain off some of their pent-up hostility, and has produced guilt, the -fear of abandonment, and the desire for the re-establishment of closeness. The partner with the stronger self-esteem at the moment, or in whom the processes just described operate more strongly, usually initiates a peace offer or makes a reconciliation gesture. If the other still needs to attack, for whatever reason, the offer or gesture may be thrown back into the partner's face, and the conflict will continue with renewed vigor, fed by the new hurt. If not, intimacy will be re-established. In a less healthy marriage, the forces driving the mutual attack are so strong that the cycle gains momentum rapidly until it is like a large stone rolling down a steep hill. Couples whose need for ventilating negative feelings and gaining elbow room in the marriage is relatively mild tend to have short fights. Those whose needs in this direction are strong often have hot or cold wars lasting for days, months, or even years.
When couples have tried unsuccessfully to communicate, over a long period of time, they often begin to use words mainly to con-fuse and attack, rather than to attempt to transmit meanings. One husband began to use large words, only semi-appropriately, when-ever he felt rejected or otherwise threatened by his wife. His words were an attempt both to hide his real feelings and to express his hostility toward her by making her feel "snowed" by verbiage. His use of a string of such words was a way of saying, "I can't reach you; I'm giving up." Such unsuccessful communication often causes couples to store up dynamite by denying and repressing hurt and angry feelings. An escape valve such as beating up the pillow while making the bed, or "knocking the guts" out of the punching bag hanging in the garage can often help to drain off violent, angry feelings while the issue is being resolved. Healthy assertiveness sometimes helps to reduce unproductive conflict. Many people who are depressed or hostile most of the time are simply struggling to hold down their natural aggressiveness and to avoid becoming aware of negative feelings. The use of words with vehemence, even anger, can be an alternative to physical violence.
Such words are often a way of letting off pressure in the inevitable frustrations of any close relationship. Occasional outbursts may make it possible for the marriage partners to be more caring and compassionate at other times. A relationship strong enough to take such outbursts in its stride is a healthy one. Providing a place where one can safely drain off hostility that has accumulated in the outside world is one of the important mental health functions of a good marriage. There is validity in the jest that, "If it weren't for marriage, husbands and wives would have to fight with strangers." (Chronic verbal attacking is not a means of maintaining a healthy marriage. )
Effective conflict-resolution communication focuses on issues rather than attacking personalities. This is the chief characteristic of productive, as distinguished from futile, arguments. Further- more, conflict resolution deals with specific issues on which decisions and compromise action can be worked out. It stays away from global accusations and from tackling the whole problem all at once (a sure way to fail). The "issue" in unproductive arguments is often only an excuse for attack upon the other partner. The hidden purpose is to increase one's own sense of power by "putting the other down."
Effective conflict resolution in marriage, then, results from several steps in the communication process. Both partners must first be willing to hear each other's complaints and to accept feelings, however vehement, about them. The couple must then make efforts to narrow down the generalized accusations to the particular issues or differences about which something can be done. They must learn to focus on one issue at a time. Each must state how he himself sees the problem and how he thinks the other sees the problem. When this "checking out" has helped to resolve the negative feelings, the couple can begin to make concessions, compromises, and plans for dealing with their differences. A relatively healthy couple in which both partners have a strong sense of
identity can really use their conflicts for growth by following these steps. If the conflict is too severe or if the couple is unable to communicate constructively, they need to seek the guidance of a marriage counselor or to join a marital growth group.
A couple may find it helpful to ask themselves questions such as these: Is this really an issue worth fighting over or is my self-esteem threatened by something my spouse has said or done? In relation to this issue or problem area, what do I want and what does my partner want that we are not getting? What middle-ground, or compromise, solution might be worked out in this area to help increase the degree of mutual need-satisfaction? What must I give in the relationship in order to satisfy the needs of my partner and myself in this area? What small next step can we take right now toward implementing this decision, made jointly through the give-and-take of discussion?
When the issue is apparently insoluble in spite of sincere effort on both sides, it is sometimes well to agree to abandon it for awhile and to focus on other areas where mutual need satisfaction is possible. Sometimes the conflict evaporates, in which case it was probably merely an excuse for releasing pent-up hostilities. It is more likely, however, that the unresolved conflict can be approached again from another angle when the partners have reconnected their communication lines in other areas.
RHYTHMS IN COMMUNICATION
It is unrealistic to expect that any couple can (or should) communicate in significant depth continually through the hours and days of their relationship. Anne Philipe gives a vivid picture of the normal fluctuations in the depth and intensity of intimacy, and of the periodic renewal of significant communication which revivifies a good marriage:
The inhuman city rhythm would sometimes separate us for several days. . . . In, out, telephones, sleep. For a while the communication would be broken, the light between us dimmed, but we knew that the next Sunday would see us reunited and we would tell each other then all that the interminable week had brought to us both: thoughts about ourselves, things we had heard, things we had observed each in the other without seeming to, as we had seemed absorbed. I liked it when you noticed my new sweater after you hadn't said a word about it the morning I put it on for the first time.(9)
A communication rhythm which helps husband and wife to affirm each other's self-esteem will increase the depth of intimacy in a marriage. Learning to communicate verbally and nonverbally their warm, loving "I care" messages can have the same effect. Effective use of the sense of touch -- a hand on the arm or forehead or buttocks -- is often worth a thousand words. No spouse should ever assume that "he (she) knows I love him (her)." A growing sense of intimacy should not require minute-to-minute reinforcement; but even the healthiest husbands and wives have enough doubts about themselves as persons worth loving to need regular affirmation from each other.
A recent magazine cartoon showed a husband and wife leaving the office of the marriage counselor. The husband was saying to the wife, "Now that we've learned to communicate, shut up!" It is obvious that learning to be aware of, and to communicate, real feelings in words is not the whole answer to the problems of communication. Need-satisfying communication becomes interpersonal communion as richer, more multi-leveled interaction becomes a channel for caring. Couples who have been intimately married for a long time often communicate on deep, subconscious levels. Such communion is something far beyond the mere sending and receiving of messages, as important as these are. It is the result of depth intimacy, the strong marital identity which is the strand of gold thread in a marriage covenant.
Take a look together at your ways of getting through to each other. Discuss the things that block efforts to communicate, particularly during conflict. Think of ways for increasing the opportunities for communication -- more face-to-face time together, for example. Do something to increase the number of areas in which you can talk the same language. Perhaps learning something about an interest of your spouse or reading a book that both of you are interested in might help.
Here are some additional communication exercises which many couples find useful in sharpening their skills in transmitting meanings: (a) Look in each other's eyes for at least a full minute and, without words, try to read what the other is feeling. The eyes are a direct pathway to the inner being of a person; their messages therefore are revealing, (b) Let one person say the other's name repeatedly, changing the tone and intensity, until that person senses that it "feels good" or affirms him. Then reverse the exercise and let the receiver become the sender. This exercise can help you to become more aware of the nuances of intimate communication. (c) Practice listening and understanding. Let one person share something about which he has strong feelings in the here and now. The other limits his responses to one thing -- saying to the first person what he perceives him as feeling. The responder may begin with a phrase such as "Let's see if I understand how it looks to you . . ." and then he paraphrases what he thinks the other is expressing, (d) Switch roles and try to state each other's position and feelings on one issue on which you have obvious differences of viewpoint, (e) Practice nonverbal communication by attempting to get messages through to each other with the use of touch, facial expressions, body movements, gestures, eye communication. (f) Try arguing at a distance with your backs to each other; then turn around and continue as you are face-to-face, holding hands and looking into each other's eyes. Be aware of the changes in your feelings in the two positions. It may surprise you how much difference physical and eye contact makes. (For a discussion of some of these and other similar communication exercises see William C. Schutz, Joy, Expanding Human Awareness [New York: Grove Press, 1967].)
These techniques are especially helpful when used in marital growth groups with a trained leader.
If you simply can't communicate on any but a superficial level ("Pass the butter," "Looks like rain") in spite of determined efforts on your own, or if your are unable to achieve the kind of communication which satisfies your needs as a couple, it is essential to seek professional help with your communication blocks.
1. Reuel L. Howe, Herein Is Love (Valley Forge, Pa.: The Judson Press, 1961), p. 100. Howe writes: One can pull himself from the pit of loneliness only by the ropes of communication. "Without communication, the possibilities for a relationship become hopeless, the resources of the partners for the relationship are no longer available, the means for healing the hurts that previous communication may have caused are no longer present. . . ." (P. 99.)
2. Robert Brizee, notes on communication.
3. Gabriel Marcel, quoted by Perry LeFevre, "On Being "With' Another," The Chicago Theological Seminary Review (December, 1966), Vol. LVII, No. 3, p. 24.
4. Paul Tournier, To Understand Each Other (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1962), pp. 28, 29.
5. Satir, Conjoint Family Therapy (Palo Alto, Calif.: Science & Behavior Books, 1964), p. 70.
6. Quoted by Ralph McGill, Atlanta Constitution, April 24, 1968, p. 1.
7. Otto Pollak, lecture, University of Pennsylvania, January 18, 1967.
8. Quoted by Howard Whitman, Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin, January 15, 1967.
9. Anne Philipe, No Longer Than a Sigh (New York: Atheneum, 1964), p. 48.