Thursday, July 15, 2010

Good communication is complicated

“What we have here is a failure to communicate”…….so goes the most famous line from the movie Cool Hand Luke.

Communication should be simple, right? Perhaps if we are thinking of the communication of simple facts, but when it comes to emotions and aspects of a personal relationship, communication is in fact extremely difficult.

When humans develop an intimate relationship they never consider how difficult communication really is. Most of us expect our communication system to be easy, uncomplicated and rarely misunderstood. In reality, good communication is a skill the majority of people never acquire. And then, we wonder why other people misunderstand us so often.

In my experience listening to couples attempting to communicate with each other in couples therapy, the number one reason people misunderstand each other is because of what therapists call ‘projection’.

Simply stated, projection is the taking of our own attitudes and feelings, view points and emotions and believing because that is how we feel then other people we are communicating with will feel the same way. In other words, we unconsciously assume everyone sees the world just as we do.

Not so. We are all unique and none of us has the same experiences as anyone else. This requires we understand that everyone we talk with does not think and feel what we do, that in fact taking our thoughts and helping another understand them is very complicated and often misunderstood.

The largest arena I see this dysfunction is in the belief that our partner is criticizing us, when they are not. What happens is we are actually critical of ourselves and assume because we are critical of ourselves, so are other people, especially loved ones. We then attack these people for feeling the way we feel ourselves about ourselves.

Now that is a mouthful. But let me give an example. Perhaps you have poor self esteem. Meaning, you do not value yourself accurately, but have negative images of yourself. Because you feel this way about yourself, you will often read other people as feeling the same way about you, when in reality they do not. But because we are so invested in believing others view us negatively, we assume the worst when in reality we ourselves feel badly about ourselves and assume everyone else does as well.

This continually occurs in therapy. People believe their partner sees them in a negative light, when if checked out by an impartial therapist, we find their partner does not believe what they negatively believe about themselves. It takes much time and is slow hard work to correct these misconceptions. But in truth many couples project their own negative feeling about themselves onto their partner and believe they are hostile towards them, when in truth it is our own thinking we are doing battle with.

The only way out of projection is to ask and then believe what your partner really feels about you. Just because you feel negatively about yourself, does not mean they do as well. However, the game of projection is so powerful it takes many sessions to correct these misconceptions. And it can only be done if you analysis what you feel about yourself, and then checking out with your partner what they really feel about you.

This is not easy work. Thus many couples fight about issues that are not real; they are projections from one party onto their partner. Once you see how this works in human relationships, you can begin by questioning yourself first before you project your own feelings onto your partner. Then, communication while more complex has a chance of being more accurate and the fighting can begin to slow down.

Marriage is like a three-legged race.

When I was a child I remember picnics where we ran the three-legged race. Two people had their middle legs attached, and the objective was to run in unison with your middle legs tied together, so that between the two of you the couple had three legs. The race required coordination so the couple ran together in harmony. It was not an easy task, but eventually the couple learnt how to run together by coordinating their bodies as one.

Marriage requires a similar skill. Marriage is a team effort, where the two of you are stronger than each alone. A good marriage can be defined as a union where two people are stronger as a couple, than as two separate individuals. If however, the two are divisive, and competitive with each other, you weaken the team. And thus a poor marriage is where two are worse for being a couple, than being a coordinated team.

The secret to running as a three-legged team is collaboration. Being critical of your partner only slows the team down. It is like your right hand hitting your left hand and pretending your body is not hurt. When you attack your partner, you attack yourself. If after running a three-legged race, you lose and criticize your partner for not helping, you are guaranteeing that the team will fail. Better to look at the problems that caused you as a team to fail, than criticizing your partner individually. In a three-legged race you either win together or you lose together. So too in marriage. You either both succeed, or you both fail. Blaming your partner for a marriage failure is like the left leg criticizing the right leg for not winning the race. It may make the left leg feel better, but it will not remedy the failure.

Marriage is not for everyone. Some people prefer to be single than to work together as a team. Unfortunately we as a society have pathologies singleness. We assume single people are lonely, unhappy and looking for a marital partner. This is simply immature, excessively romantic and idealistic. I know many people who are happier as an individual than as a couple, and assuming this is unnatural for humans is ridiculous.

If you wish to be married, then you must work at becoming a team. You must learn how to be a couple, as two people have to learn how to run a three-legged race as one. The key to running a three-legged race is to move your combined middle feet together as a unit, not separately as an individual. This requires coordination, a spirit of teamwork, and patience as you learn how to support each other rather than criticize and tear each other down.

All team sports require the individuals give up most of their personal ego for the benefit of the team. For example, on a football team, it is imperative for a quarterback to be blocked by his front line. Every successful quarterback always congratulates his front line when they win, and when they lose they are very discrete about criticizing in public their team members. Successful football teams work together as a group. With group sport teams, they all succeed or they all fail together.

Marriage is the same as team sports. Team is the essence of marital success. The team cooperates, coordinates and collaborates. In so doing they either succeed together or they fail in their mission as a team.