Communication in a relationship

The importance of communication in a relationship

Communication is one of the keys to a closely connected and successful relationship. There are so many issues to resolve when sharing a life with someone from the small, such as choosing a restaurant for dinner, to the big, like whether or not to have children, and communication is what enables couples to navigate through these. For a relationship to work well, couples must be able to navigate through these in a way that leaves both feeling satisfied and getting their needs met, without spiralling into the damaging conflict that can sometimes occur. 

Take the example of a couple, Jack and Erin. Erin is wanting to talk with Jack when he gets home as she enjoys the closeness and debriefing from the day but for Jack, he likes to take 10 minutes to unwind alone before engaging with Erin. With poor communication, Erin become critical of Jack with comments to him about how he doesn't seem to care about her and that he is always prioritising work. In emotionally focussed therapy, this is what we call 'dialling up' (it is like turning up the volume on the stereo a notch). Jack, on the other hand may respond by shutting down and going quiet, not responding to Erin. This is called 'dialling down'. The more Jack dials down, the more Erin feels the need to dial up to try and be heard and the more she dials up, the more Jack feels he has to dial down to protect himself, the relationship, or Erin from the impact of the conflict. Both dialling up and down are attempts at sending a message but they are hard for the other to read and usually create hurt and anxiety, which will often trigger what we call in emotionally focussed therapy a 'negative cycle'.

Good communication involves sending clear signals and receiving those signals. To do so, we must be able to share our 'primary emotions'. Primary emotions are the feelings we feel as a direct consequence of the situation, rather than secondary emotions, which come after. For example, we may feel hurt by a comment (primary emotion) and then move to anger (secondary emotion). Couples will be able to work through whatever issue they are facing if they are able to send and receive these clear signals. Remember, it is not the differences per se that make a couple work or not, rather it is the way that we resolve these differences.