As a couple and family therapist, I receive a number of phone calls each week that go something like this: “We need marriage counseling… We are not communicating well… We are hoping you can help give us some tools to fix this problem.” And, being married, I understand that we misunderstand one another in partnered relationships. We have fights – and we sometimes look at our partner and wonder who replaced our spouse with an alien from another planet. If this is your experience, then realize that you are not alone.
What Lies Behind Our Communication?
From my perspective as a therapist, when folks use the word “communication” I view this very differently than an English teacher or a telephone operator would. While communication is still a process of sending and receiving verbal or nonverbal messages from sender to receiver, I have learned that a couple’s communication has a depth and a breadth that is far more all-encompassing than simply speaking or remaining silent. I am much more concerned about what is behind the communication style and behaviors, and about what they represent. Even more, I am concerned about the ultimate need behind those words and actions.
Psychology has taught us that the security or lack of security in our attachment style has the most profound impact on how we do relationships. In fact, according to Susan M. Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, there have been over a hundred empirically-based research projects that have confirmed this reality (Personal communication, 2015).
What is Our Attachment Style?
In simpler terms, attachment is the quality of our connection to our loved ones, whether for our parents or, for adults, our romantic partners. Johnson (2008) emphasizes this aspect because “the quality of the connection to loved ones and early emotional deprivation is key to the development of personality and to an individual’s habitual way of connecting with others.” What Johnson is saying is that the way we have learned to communicate is directly related to our early childhood experiences with our parents and adult caregivers. And, while this has been proven over and over again, we now know that our responses and attachment style can change. We can do something differently. We can develop nurturing relationships, no matter how bad things are or have been. While I will not explore each possible attachment style in this article, I will define what we as human beings are wired to need in relation to being securely attached.
Our Deepest Need
Johnson (2013) highlights an acronym that sums up what we need from our partners. She uses A.R.E., which stands for Accessible-Responsive-Engaged. To be accessible to our partner means that we are there, or can respond. Johnson (2013) notes: “We reach out for our loved ones particularly when we are uncertain, threatened, anxious, or upset. Contact with them gives us a sense of having a safe haven; where we will find comfort and emotional support” (p. 38). To be responsive and engaged means more than just communicating with our partner. It means that we are attuned to their needs. Johnson (2013) describes this as: “Learning to love and be loved is in effect, about learning to tune into our emotions so that we need from a partner and expressing those desires openly, in a way that evokes sympathy and support from him or her” (p. 64). When we are able to do this we can give each other what we need emotionally, physically, relationally, and spiritually.
Putting It into Practice
When we have those emotional fights or times when we become passive-aggressive, we need to realize that there is more going on than just not having the skills to communicate. There is always something more about what we need and about what we are feeling. There is more about what we want from our partner than what we often realize.
Christian Counseling for Deeper Communication with Your Partner
As a Christian counselor, I have been privileged to accompany couples on their journey of deepening their communication. If you find communication with your partner difficult, feel free to contact me to embark on a journey of creating something new and transformative.
“Rain Drops,” courtesy of PublicDomainPictures, All-free-download.com, Public Domain License; “Sunset Beach,” courtesy of the author, Michael Lillie