Most couples think they struggle with communication. Most of them are wrong.
Love Intently had the pleasure and excitement of getting to know Brad and Tami Miller from Tandem Marriage. Brad and Tami, the founders behind Tandem Marriage have been married for 32 years. Below Brad shares some of their knowledge about truly communicating with your partner.
Tami and I operate a group counseling practice in Southern California. We are known throughout the area for providing the best and most practical marriage counseling around. We love this reputation. With ten licensed counselors and registered interns on our staff, we collectively see about 100 clients each and every week. All of this gives us some incredible insight into the kinds of things that most couples struggle with. We know what it takes to get these couples back on track when needed.
The majority of couples we see tell us they struggle with good communication. This is either their sole marital challenge, or it is on the top of the list of marriage challenges that a particular couple brings with them. Most couples will perceive some communication challenges at some point in their relationship. And most couples will hit their first communication roadblock by the time they hit the five-year mark.
For argument's sake, let’s say we are talking about a married couple that publicly proclaimed their love for each other and took wedding vows within the last five years. What change has occurred for this couple that is tripping up their once healthy communication? Over time, do they merely lose their ability to communicate well? Or is there something deeper, some larger concept, in play here that will serve their marriage and your marriage well if the time is taken to learn it?
There are several things in play here, let’s break them down together.
In many ways, what happens to couples who say they struggle with communication is – life. Life is stressful and challenging. Anyone who has been on their own for a few years knows that adulting is hard. There are many responsibilities to keep, never-ending bills to pay, and new boundaries to enforce. When we first get married, these adulting challenges are a welcomed part of the package you get when you choose to spend your life with another. These challenges often seem insignificant when compared to the benefits of sharing your entire life with that one special person. But as life marches on, these problems can weigh heavier and heavier. These stumbling blocks and the stress that comes with them will begin to erode your good communication skills and your patience as well.
There is another issue we have to factor into this equation as well, early love and infatuation. Early love can only be sustained by most people for about two years. When you are in the early stages of love, your brain produces more of the feel-good chemicals that we have all enjoyed while we in a new relationship. This love cocktail is a mix of oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. These chemicals all play a part in new lovers being convinced that the sky is bluer, the birds sing better, and life is more wonderful than ever before.
Unfortunately, these effects will wear off. This is because your brain can only produce and sustain the high levels of oxytocin and other love-inducing chemicals for a limited time, according to researcher and author Dr. John Gottman and others (1). Further, when these chemicals do start to wear off, we will often begin to wonder what is wrong with our relationship.
Let’s put all of this together. Several years into a marriage, we find that these love-induced chemicals have run their course. This is also when the responsibilities of life and the stress that comes with them have started to wear us down and we mistakenly begin to question if we married the right person since something feels wrong. Next, we lose the profound patience we once had with our spouses—we have experienced this in our relationship and you will too at some point. The final step in this downward relational spiral is when you both begin to argue more as compromise and understanding between the two of you have reached a low level that you would have denied being possible just a few years earlier.
Let us illustrate this with a math equation:
Love drugs wearing off + life and it’s challenges = poorer communication + increased marital conflict.
Therefore, the cause of all of this marital turmoil is not poor communication, rather poor communication is a byproduct of your love drugs wearing off coupled with life and it’s challenges. Since you cannot return to your former state of new-lovers euphoria, what else can you do?
The answer is that you can learn new and better ways to handle conflict. This is part of maturing together as a couple. Conflict is straightforward enough to work through—if you have some solid and time-tested conflict resolution skills.
One of the biggest hurdles that couples must overcome is that they often misunderstand that they are actually struggling with conflict-resolution because they mislabel it as “poor communication.” Calling conflict-resolution the wrong thing (poor communication) makes it more challenging to find helpful solutions. In other words, if the issue is merely one of poor communication, we may merely instruct ourselves (or others in this situation) to talk more often and try to communicate better. This rarely solves the issue at hand since the issue is not truly poor communication, but a need to resolve conflict better.
By the way, conflict in marriage is not a problem; the inability to resolve conflict well is the problem. Tami and I will maintain that any conflict handled well, brings the opportunity for deeper understanding and intimacy between spouses. But how do you get there? What you and your spouse truly need is better conflict-resolution skills.
Let us ask you this: Did you ever see your parents work out conflict in loving and healthy ways? Some of us have parents who were not married, so the answer is no. Some would say that they never saw their parents argue or fight. Trust us, they did. But if you never saw these issues worked out, the answer is no again. And for some, you witnessed conflict, but the aftermath was not healthy, and you never learned anything beneficial from this scenario either. Another no.
Now that we have defined our terms and called poor communication what it actually is, which is “poor conflict-resolution,” you are on the same page with us. We can and will teach you some very useful and time-tested conflict-resolution skills in our next post here Love Intently. As you learn to recognize the rough edges in your relationship as struggles with conflict-resolution, you will agree this is the heart of the issue we all struggle within marriage.
Don’t forget that conflict handled well, leads to greater intimacy in marriage. Hasn’t greater intimacy been our goal and our hope all along? We think so! And we are going to show you how it’s done.
(1) KELLEHER, KATHLEEN. “Couples With Right Chemistry Have Love Down to a Science.” Los Angeles Times, 2 July 2001, articles.latimes.com/2001/jul/02/news/cl-17638.