Communication is NOT Your Problem

Written by Morgan Johnson

What do most couples say brings them into counseling? “Communication.” Ask any therapist. With me, it’s tied up there with betrayal/infidelity, but even in those contexts, my clients estimate that communication “is the problem.”

Well yes, communication could be blamed (e.g. one of you had sex with a bunch of prostitutes and strippers and failed to communicate that fact). Pretty big “communication problem.” I accept that logic. But for me the important question is WHY?

This is where we have to ditch the moralistic sociocultural nonsense we were weaned on. People don’t cheat because they are bad or “bastards” or because “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” or because “once a cheater always a cheater.”

I wish we could mute-button most people’s attempted sympathy responses when they are trying to support someone who has been cheated on. (hint: try exclusively, “How are you feeling? What do you need?”)

People who go outside their relationship secretly do not usually plan it out, aiming to destroy the one they love most–sometimes it’s as simple as running out of energy to say no. It’s so frequently a distressed/ruptured sense of connection at the heart of infidelity (at the heart of any “disorder” if you ask me…).

When I hear “We need counseling to work on our communication,” I immediately want to know what is *REALLY* the issue. Same when couples say, “Sex is the problem.” Sure it is. (sex is distracting you from something bigger, I promise.)

But I chill because I know the counseling process will allow us to communicate around the deep unspoken, expectations, values, dreams, and disappointments that are so often actually underneath and actually resolve symptoms/distress.

Sometimes I notice people dig into semantics and fights when they realize deeply that they actually are incompatible and not attracted to one another or something big like that. Ask yourself if HOW you and your partner speak is really what’s causing dissatisfaction.

Brace yourself for what relationship science says–it’s not necessarily what you grew up thinking about partnerships. The Gottman Institute found that upwards of 70% of our conflicts are UNRESOLVABLE.

That’s right. No dice. I’m one way you are another. The most common two I hear in my work: 1) I’m super socially wired but my partner is introverted. 2) My partner doesn’t want sex as much as me.

Because so many couples blamed communication, researchers were like, okay, wouldn’t it be great if just fixing communication made couples counseling work? So, they studied outcomes if couples received extensive communication training. Turns out, it doesn’t help.

So what does? You mean we should just throw our hands up and divorce/break up because of our irreconcilable differences? I mean SEVENTY percent of conflicts?!

It’s really okay–and hopeful! Google “Gottman Sound Relationship House.” Gottman and his researchers found that even with that high a percentage of unresolvable conflict, relational satisfaction remained strong if there was also: love mapping (knowing your partner’s inner world), shared experiences and quality time, shared life goals, positivity, trust, commitment, turning towards–basically, ultra strong friendship.

Yes, if you’re distressed and really blowing it with communication as a team, I’ll teach some basic skills, but only so we can begin to navigate to the heart of the meaning–usually buried deep underneath the “presenting problem” or the “communication issues.”

It’s an approach that takes courage, but once partners actually begin to try to really share how they feel, they begin to grow together… And it’s the coolest thing in the world to get to watch!


Morgan Johnson is a post-graduate counseling intern at The Center for Relationships with a Bachelor’s from Wake Forest and a Masters degree in professional counseling from St. Edward’s University.  She is the director of our Intimacy Support program as well as the creative force behind many of our innovative ideas.  Follow her on Facebook @MorganJohnsonATX and Twitter @MojoATX.  If you would like to schedule a meeting with Morgan, please call 512-465-2926.