Marital Myth of Communication: It’s never about communication.
My hope in this piece is to address a mistaken idea that if an individual (or both) in a relationship will improve their “communication skills” they will save and improve their marriage. It's my belief that this idea has become popular among both therapists and couples because it's easier to focus on words instead of emotional health and core values systems — it’s more tangible. Unfortunately, improving one’s skills in communication doesn't foster connection, trust or empathy. At best, they just become really good at not saying the "wrong" thing or triggering their spouse. It's a form of spousal emotional management. At worst, with these improved communication skills couples become more skilled at hurting and dismissing each other. The hurt and dismissing can be both intentional and unintentional.
What enables this myth is a false-positive that the newfound skills are working. In the beginning phase, couples have reported that they have improved in their communication significantly and are doing "better." However, the false-positive appears to directly correspond with how precisely the one spouse complies with the the other. For example, the spouse who enforces (the "Enforcer") or strongly recommends a solution (usually the Enforcer’s solution is in the the form of a popular method or book they are reading) reports success based on their view of how well the other spouse (the "Mitigator") is complying with the rules of engagement established in that method or book they recommended. The Mitigator, although not completely sold on the method, but out of either a desire to prove their love or mitigate the Enforcer’s disappointment, they comply.
The couple then begins to engage in an interaction of what I call "book speak." One engages in "book speak" when one adopts the specific language and jargon of a book and repeats it with conviction, often claiming disproportionate results and incorporating these claims and jargon it into every conversation. But like the Crossfit, vegan, paleo, or popular MLM friend (or family member), their passion always seems to outweigh practicality, actual results and sincerity. Unfortunately for some, this passion is blinding, and when the placebo effect wears off, or when others don't report the same level of success, their solution is MORE of what's not working.
Sometimes that’s learning about “love languages,” grammar/word choice, "Emotional Intelligence," what "color" you are, the ridiculously oversold Myers-Briggs personality test (MBTI) designed by a non-scientist (Carl Jung, I am sure is turning in his grave), or any one of the many other methods out there. Although, there is value in understanding and discovering our own differences in communication and personalities, it is a distraction from the real issue(s).
Conversely, while the Enforcer measures success in precision, the Mitigator measures success based on the decrease in reactivity of the Enforcer (and usually increased sexual encounters). Are you seeing how this is spousal emotional management, not improvement?
But after the novelty wears off, the Enforcer often expresses they “feel” just as distant, if not more distant than before. Even though the Mitigator uses the “right” words and phrases are said, he/she still feels empty. The Enforcer (and sometimes the Mitigator) see their partner as “not really meaning” what they say. They are just saying what they learned. If they really loved them, it would be more natural and they would “feel” the difference. The Mitigator will often continue to "book speak" and engage in this new skill because the Enforcer's reactivity is still decreased. But the moment the Enforcers behavior returns, the Mitigator will also return to old habits, to, well, you know, mitigate their spouses reactivity, pain, hurt or disappointment.
Sometimes the Enforcer will acknowledge how well the Mitigator is doing in adapting to the improved communication skills, but only to reconcile the cognitive dissonance between the improved skills and continued emotional disconnect. The Enforcer will escalate the expectation of the skill and express disappointment because the Mitigator didn’t say the right things, correctly, at precisely the right time, or quick enough. Some Enforcers will become what I call, "serial communicators," rotating through every communication style and method. During this, the Mitigator becomes lost in which method to apply when and is seen by the Enforcer as not "caring enough" to make it a priority.
Before you think these are individuals who failed to understand the concept or are exceptions of these various communication skills, I should tell you that these are impressive individuals and well educated: doctors, lawyers, CEOs, engineers, professors, mothers, fathers and even other therapists. Interestingly, whether it was the engineer with multiple Ph.D.s or the high school dropout, these individuals and couples were all experiencing the same thing. These are well educated individuals with a firm grasp on language and communication. It wasn’t a matter of not doing it correctly or consistently or understanding the concepts and applying it in precisely the right moment. Something else was happening.
What I believe is happening at its core is an individual's loss of identity. What seems to be consistent in relationships that struggle with communication — and specifically see communication as the problem — is the individual’s ability to clearly identify with themselves. They have either lost themselves in their career, in parenting, in life or in how they believe God sees them — to the point that they no longer (or never have) known themselves. The fear of not knowing oneself is not only scary, but claustrophobic and reactive. It prevents one from giving and receiving real love. This fear clouds their ability to look past words and experience real connection.
This lack of confidence and insecurity, places an unpredictable burden on loved ones to manage expectations and feelings of the individual’s uncertainty — which is impossible, since they don't know how to manage their own expectations and feelings. Assuming the best about their spouse is frightfully difficult when they can't assume the best of themselves. As a result, they begin to show signs of projection and assume that their spouse meant to hurt them because they would have if the roles were reversed.
From the pragmatic to the emotional, I have heard each say “words have meaning.” They do have meaning, but until we master that skill, we would do well to first assume the best in our spouses.
In the October 2003 Ensign, Elder Holland urges us to do exactly this:
“The second segment of this scriptural sermon on love in Moroni 7:45 [Moro. 7:45] says that true charity—real love—'is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity.' Think of how many arguments could be avoided, how many hurt feelings could be spared, and, in a worst-case scenario, how many breakups and divorces could be avoided if we were not so easily provoked, if we thought no evil of one another, and if we not only did not rejoice in iniquity but didn’t rejoice even in little mistakes.Think the best of each other, especially of those you say you love. Assume the good and doubt the bad.” ―Elder Jeffery R. Holland, How Do I Love Thee?
Interestingly, just a few years earlier, at a 2000 BYU address, he gave the same talk but used slightly different wording, which I believe emphasis this point:
"The second segment of this scriptural sermon on love in Moroni 7:45 says that true charity—real love—'is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity.' Think of how many arguments could be avoided, how many hurt feelings could be spared, how many cold shoulders and silent treatments could be ended, and, in a worst-case scenario, how many breakups and divorces could be avoided if we were not so easily provoked, if we thought no evil of one another, and if we not only did not rejoice in iniquity but didn’t rejoice even in little mistakes.
Temper tantrums are not cute even in children; they are despicable in adults, especially adults who are supposed to love each other. We are too easily provoked; we are too inclined to think that our partner meant to hurt us—meant to do us evil, so to speak; and in defensive or jealous response we too often rejoice when we see them make a mistake and find them in a fault. Let’s show some discipline on this one. Act a little more maturely. Bite your tongue if you have to. “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city” (Proverbs 16:32). At least one difference between a tolerable marriage and a great one may be that willingness in the latter to allow some things to pass without comment, without response." ―Elder Jeffery R. Holland, How Do I Love Thee?
Again, let me be very clear. Unfortunately, some will interpret the concept of "assuming the best" as justification for abuse — ironically because of the same fear, which stems from a fear of "giving up" on their loved ones. As such, some will dismiss their spouse’s verbal, emotional, spiritual and physical abuse because they assume the best in their spouse, or they believe they have to have "hope" in their eternal marriage. There is NO scripture, doctrine or prophetic council that says that our loving Heavenly Father believes we should tolerate, endure, allow or continue in any way with an abusive relationship.
For additional reading on abuse:
Building Trust Through Assuming The Best
For most of us, assuming the best is logical but counter-intuitive. How does one assume the best when there is a history of so much hurt and undesirable words exchanged? How does one move past that? How does one assume the best, especially if your spouse isn't assuming the best in you?
Remember, it’s not about your spouse; it’s about you.
1. Build yourself
There is another profound misconception I will address in another post — that is, the order of importance one places on their own worth and development. Ideally, our priority should be God, self, spouse, children. When you remove yourself from second on the list, you do so because of fear. To the degree we prioritize fear on the list, we lose ourself. Additionally, if we are not second on the list of priority, I can assure you God is not first. Assuming the best includes yourself too.
2. Adoring the dumb
Yes, I mean it. Adore the dumb in your spouse AND in yourself. My wife and I have a saying: “Everyone is stupid but us.” This isn't said in a tone of conceit, but, rather irony. My dumb isn't your dumb and your dumb isn't my dumb, but there is one thing that is common, we are both doing our loving best.
I say dumb things a lot. Sometimes intentionally, most of the time unintentionally. I say the wrong things. I am dyslexic with my words (thoughts) and am not always as sensitive with my words. Sometimes, I think I am being brilliantly funny and it comes out insulting unfortunately. I already know this; I don't have to have it pointed out every time. That creates resentment and hyper-awareness and usually causes individuals to fluctuate between diligent carefulness to a screw it mentality.
However, because of my spouse’s ability to assume the best in me, this burden is lifted. I never fear of hurting my wife or drawing distant from her because of something I said. I never feel like I have to prove, defend or convince her of my intentions. I can be the real me. I can be absolutely vulnerable with her. Thus, reducing the fear that "being me" hurts her.
3. Be vulnerable
Confidence and love can only grow if we are vulnerable.
“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.
Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them. We can only love others as much as we love ourselves.
Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damages the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed, and rare.”1 ―Brené Brown
4. Encourage your spouse to be unfiltered in their communication.
You want to end the 2-8 hour-long conversations that go until 4 a.m.? Encourage your spouse to say exactly what is on their mind, and don’t take any offense. Most conversations endure endlessly and painfully because you are constantly managing the other person's emotions, in addition to your own.
5. Stop trying to understand
No, you don't need to understand or ensure the other understands. It's a form of controlling behavior to demand understanding. You can't understand. There is no way I can ever understand everything my wife feels and experiences. One of the most comforting and loving things my wife has said to me is, "I don't understand but I love you." It caught me off guard. I stopped talking and felt a closeness I wasn't expecting to feel. It was a trusting and loving response. I also felt safe and adored.
Often, we try to get the other person to understand us so we don't have to explain anymore, so they will do what we want them to do. We should trust our spouse's needs, convictions and desires.
6. Improve communication
Communication IS important; it's just not the reason. We would do well to constantly strive to improve in our communication, finding more healthy and meaningful ways to express and receive love. Because I am confident in myself, I know who I am. My wife can have a bad day, yell, get upset, feel disappointment, need time alone, and I am not negatively affected. Having this self-worth and not being negatively affected allows me to speak her language, naturally and sincerely.