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Good communication…

Perhaps the most common reason that couples give for wanting therapy is “to improve our communication.” Sounds simple enough, right? But it turns out that communication is actually quite complex. As Pete Pearson of the Couple’s Institute in Menlo Park points out, good communication is not only the culmination of a pyramid of skills, but it also often involves a series of unnatural acts.

…Is Unnatural

Let’s step back a moment and consider the broad pageant of time. Current estimates are that multicellular life has been on the planet for about 750 million years. Humans are estimated to have been around for about 2 1/2 million years. And we have had structured language for perhaps 100,000 years, or less than 1% of the time we’ve been here. What does this have to do with communication? Consider how evolution has shaped us as living beings. The primary functions of living beings are to sustain themselves individually and to propagate as a group. Our basic drives see to it that we breathe, drink, eat, and make whoopi. These things are so essential that we commonly see them overriding rationality. Everyone knows that affairs can wreak havoc, and yet the rate of affairs in our culture is close to 50% for both men and women. Most people know that if you eat too much (especially junk food) and don’t exercise enough you’ll become overweight and it is much harder to lose weight and to gain it. Yet the obesity rates keep rising. These are just some of the ways that biology trumps rationality.

It’s Not That We Don’t Know the Better Way

Most people also know what forms of communication are harmful. Couples can routinely tell me what things they do (or particularly what things their partners do!) that are less than constructive. They can readily come up with examples like yelling, blaming, withdrawing, slamming the door (yes that is a communication!), whining or nagging. They can also imagine more effective methods such as listening, empathizing, having patience and compassion, talking more calmly, or asking for help. We prove to ourselves over and over what doesn’t work.  So if we know what doesn’t work and also what would be better, what is so hard about doing what’s better? The answer is that nature has designed human beings to store information about threatening situations and to defend ourselves against them, all automatically and faster than the speed of thought.

Words Will Hurt Me

Brain imaging research suggests that emotional pain is registered in the same part of the brain as physical pain. So when you talk to your partner in a blaming tone you might as well be hitting him or her with a stick or a stone. The expression “biting sarcasm” has a kernel of literal truth to it. A while back I was clipping my golden retriever’s nails. She is the sweetest, most gentle dog you can imagine. However as I cut one claw just a little bit too close for the first time ever, in an instant she wheeled her head around and put her mouth around my wrist. Because we’ve specifically trained her not to bite down on people she did not, but her instinct was to react immediately to the pain by biting the source. In verbal fights with our partners we do the same without even thinking about it. I blame you, you blame me back. “You didn’t close the door.” “Well you didn’t turn out the lights.” Or, I blame you, you defend yourself. “You didn’t get home till two o’clock last night.” “I was so busy, I lost track of the time.” The variations are endless but the process boils down to a small set of responses: strike, strike back, and/or deflect or escape.

How Language Mucks Things Up

What gets lost in typical verbal interchanges under stress are the underlying feelings that drive the conflict. Underlying “You didn’t get home till two o’clock,” might be hurt, loneliness, disappointment or fear to name a few. It may not be “natural” to name these feelings instead of making an accusing statement, but it is much easier to hear and respond in a connecting way to “I missed you and was disappointed when you didn’t get home until two o’clock.”

Animals resolve their disputes nonverbally (i.e. that is without words–not necessarily without vocal sounds). They transmit and receive visual, aural, olfactory, and tactile cues that are more direct emotional communications. And even if they get riled up with each other, they usually settle down after a moderately brief physiological cooling-off period. When people get riled up, they have to go through the same physiological cooling-off (20-30 minutes), but then often they maintain their readiness to attack and defense by looping disparaging phrases in their heads about their partners. For mild examples, “What’s the matter with him? Why can’t he just close the door?,” or “Doesn’t she realize that leaving lights on is a waste of energy?” What’s worse, as flexible as language is, it provides all kinds of room for ambiguity, misinterpretation, and symbolic confusion.

The Dawn of Understanding: Using Language for What Matters Most

Going back to our time line, if the length of time that humans have been on the planet is represented by the distance between one’s outstretched hands, we have only had language for about the length of two finger joints. Language is an overlay at the end of that approximately 5 to 6 foot span–not to mention the other hundreds of millions of years that animals and other organisms have been developing complex bodily responses to environmental threat. Our embodied response to threat—verbal or otherwise—is mediated by the emotional centers of our brains.  And this happens about half a second before we are even aware of it, much less able to put into words. It is that way because that is the system that has preserved our species over those millions of years. While language has given us incredible capabilities, we are just beginning to understand how to use language to truly communicate with each other.

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