By Gill Seaton-Jardine, Counsellor/Psychotherapist
Recently, in my work as a counsellor, I came across a situation which appeared to be the break up of a marriage. The couple had been married for several years and together even more years. The partner who came to see me was very unhappy, feeling entirely alone, could see no way forward with the relationship and was making plans for leaving the marriage and starting life again as a single person.
On further exploration, it became clear that she/he had not told the partner, let alone discussed it with them. She/he felt that enough time had been given for things to change and, had the partner wanted the marriage to work, they would have changed their behaviour. I asked if she/he had made it clear that he/she wanted the partner to change to which she/he replied well, yes, maybe a bit but didn’t want to be a nag and anyway the partner should know. Ah, I thought, tricky, an assumption here that the partner should be, and in fact is, a mind reader! You want change and the other person in the relationship should not only know that you want change but also know how that change might look.
So, I ask myself, what is missing here? Of course, the answer is simple, it is communication. I say simple and, whilst in principle the notion of communicating, in other words relating to another person, does not appear initially daunting, it is fraught with difficulties, perhaps the greatest of which is unwanted and unexpected consequences. It has many levels, many unwritten rules, many landmines and tends to be avoided in case it makes the situation worse thereby leaving things unsaid and therefore unresolved.
So, what do we actually mean by ‘communication’? According to the Oxford English Dictionary it is described as ‘the transmission or exchange of information, knowledge or ideas by means o speech, writing, mechanical or electronic media’ (OED 2019).
It seems to me that, for our purposes, we need to consider another concept – that of ‘receiving’.
In our example above, we are considering a domestic concept whereby part of the problem may well be that of messages falling on ‘deaf’ ears consequently causing a breakdown in communication. This can come from the familiarity of people living together and not really listening to, let lone hearing, the other person and their message.
In the early days of a relationship, we tend to sit down together perhaps in a pub, a restaurant, a beach as well as at home and we chat to one another. As time goes by, we tend to talk ‘on the run’. Life is busy and we send less time just for each other. We always have something else to do so we concentrate less on what the other is saying. These new patterns will start on the road to less effective communicating, less understanding, less working in tune and inevitably more misunderstandings. A gulf starts to form and nobody really knows why or how to stop it. During this phase we can start drawing conclusions and making assumptions about what the other is thinking, how the other is feeling and what the other may want. What has happened here? We used to be close, we used to know what made the other happy but now we have lost our way. In the case of the above relationship, one party started to assume that they were no longer loved, that they were no longer wanted leading to feelings of loneliness and aloneness, plus a feeling of being trapped in a loveless, cold relationship causing that partner to want out.
I would remind you that, at this point, no communication has taken place!! Wow, amazing what can happen organically.
One other concept we need to consider whilst we are on this subject is that of tolerance. We are inclined to think of tolerance as always positive and in many cases it is but perhaps not always. How can that be, you may think, surely we a strive to give out an be o the receiving end of tolerance? Tolerance allows everybody else to be themselves. Tolerance makes allowances to people’s behaviour that we may not like or appreciate. Tolerance can make us stand back, say nothing, allow difficult things to continue. What is happening here? Are we still communicating? Are we being honest with each other? It seems we are not so it could be that we are back on the road to misunderstandings. That’s where we were when we were not communicating earlier in this piece. Perhaps the time has come to open up abut our real feelings in order to challenge what is developing. This is so hard to do. We have probably changed our behaviours without realising and our partner has also changed behaviours in response .
In the case of our original couple, the partner who spoke to me recognised how his/her behaviours had changed as well as how she/he was feeling i.e. very low, very sad and very flat. She/he was busy trying to resolve the situation without fully realising that communication between the two had completely broken down. She/he did not actually know how the other was feeling, what the other may be thinking or indeed what the other wanted in terms of the relationship. It could well be that the other was largely unaware of how upset their partner was – especially if the other one was busy demonstrating tolerance. We all think so differently, the only way we can know what another person is experiencing is by listening and hearing and trying to understand their point of view.
In my practice, I regularly recommend that the parties ensure that they have time designated for each other at least once a week. This doesn’t need to be a posh dinner or outing to the theatre, it just needs to be allocated time to each other. Start with 15 or 20 minutes at a convenient time and date.
Have a coffee together or a cup of tea, perhaps a beer or a glass of wine – whatever you want. The important part of this meeting is to have an opportunity to check each other out – are we both ok? Is there anything bothering either one of us? Just make space so that you communicate with each other effectively at least once a week.
The power of communication is enormous. We all have huge demands on our time and we can lose precious relationships by simply not paying them enough attention. Have a look at your partner, your close friend, your child – how are they? Just ask them but make sure you listen to their answer- you might be surprised at what you hear.