Richard A. Grossman PhD

Couples Counseling: Is Better Communication Enough?

“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

You may remember (if you are at least 60) this signature line from the movie “Cool Hand Luke.” 

And if you’ve been in couples counseling, you’ve probably heard it spoken in some form or fashion by your counselor.

The problem is: for most couples, the line is a myth.

Forgive the pop culture blasphemy.  But truth be said, couples are communicating all the time. They use “hidden messages,” otherwise known as subtext.  Hidden messages are the “between-the-lines” communications that fly back and forth in a relationship. They are often more powerful than messages directly spoken. To the trained ear, they are most revealing.

O.K., you say, “What we have here is a failure to communicate–directly! We’re talking about a semantic difference…”

Nope. There is a delightfully romantic notion (often seen in movies) that if people only spoke their minds and hearts directly, all would be well. I have treated many couples, and I have almost never found this to be true. If unhappy couples were able to speak their minds and hearts directly (i.e., made the hidden messages clear), each party would know where the other stands, but neither would necessarily be happier. Indeed, we learn to communicate indirectly in order to hide the true feelings that might be seen as socially inappropriate or destructive. We are all, more or less, politicians when it comes to relating to people, even those closest to us.

Does this mean that all unhappy couples are doomed to be miserable forever? Hardly. But the solution is never as quick and easy as the  popular magazines suggest.   What determines success in couples counseling? Here’s a brief list:

   1. Each party must be willing to learn what it is they are asking for and why. This can be complicated. Often wishes and needs have deep familial/historical roots, and are all but invisible except to a therapist. For example: “I asked you to do the dishes, and you didn’t do them” may bear the emotional weight of: “You don’t listen to me, no one has ever listened to me–I don’t know if I have ever had a place in anyone’s life.” And the slightly sarcastic reply, “I’m sorry, I forgot” may bear the emotional weight of “These are your wishes, your needs.  What about me? Who, in my life, ever paid attention to me and what I wanted?”

   2. Each party must learn to understand and take responsibility for the hidden messages they are sending. People must recognize that they may be saying the “right thing,” but sending contradictory messages that better reflect longstanding historical wishes/needs/feelings. 

   3. Each party must be willing to share what they discover about themselves (painful personal histories, unfulfilled childhood needs, the ways they protect themselves) and encourage the other to do likewise.  

   4. Each party must be willing to continue all of the above after counseling ends. 

From this list, one can see that couples counseling requires commitment, toleration, and respect for one’s partner.  Above all it takes patience.  A better marriage requires more than improved communication:  it takes genuine insight.  Meaningful changes do not occur overnight because discoveries about self take time.  But the outcome of couples counseling may be well worth the effort.  There is no better way to know your partner, be known and deepen a relationship. And the important result is: both parties feel less alone in the world.