116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
“We have communication issues.”
This is the most common response I get when I ask couples, “What brings you to therapy?”
I’ve found that “communication issues” can mean many things. It might be a couple ready to breakup; one partner may have cheated; they may not agree on how to parent children; or it could mean that they just think their partner needs to change.
Like these couples, most of us are taught that if we could just communicate better, all our relationship issues would go away. In fact, there is a lot of communication techniques that have been developed to improve communication. “I messages,” “Speaker-Listener Technique,” and “The 5 Love Languages” have all been developed to help us communicate better to the ones we love.
But, communication, on its own, doesn’t solve relationship problems. It’s important, but on its own, it can be problematic. Communication must be coupled with compassion. Without compassion, I’ve seen couples use communication techniques in destructive way.
One partner might say, “I feel like you are a jerk and don’t do your fair share.”
The other partner responds, “I heard you say that I’m a jerk and don’t do my fair share. Well, I feel like you are wrong.”
Then an argument begins.
When communication is coupled with compassion, it is very different. Compassion brings empathy, patience and seeing the other person’s struggle. Compassion doesn’t let people off the hook for things they have done wrong but allows these people to see how they have deeply hurt someone they love. Compassion requires vulnerability and responsibility.
When couples communicate with compassion, it sounds and feels very different. When couples have compassion, they can be present for their partner. They can create space for their partner’s emotions, without disowning their own emotions. When partners have compassion, they create space for forgiveness, healing and growth.
But compassion is often hard to come by, especially when there have been repeated hurts inflicted into a relationship. Sometimes, even when compassion is found, the relationship still ends because it has been too badly broken. Compassion isn’t going to fix everything, but it does give couples the best chance.
When couples come to therapy with communication issues, I agree with them, but my goal isn’t to necessarily improve the communication. It’s to uncover how their compassion for themselves and each other went away and to discover what they need to restore it.
In many cases, when couples find compassion again, the communication problems take care of themselves.
Jacob Priest is a licensed marriage and family therapist and University of Iowa professor. He co-hosts the Attached Podcast. Comments: email@example.com