In the more than 30 years that I have been working with couples I can unreservedly say that by far the most critical factor determining whether a couple will stay together and how happy and fulfilled they will be with each other is their ability to communicate. If a relationship cannot talk about itself, that is if one or both persons cannot or do not talk about their actual experience of it, the relationship and the love in it will hit a glass ceiling above which they cannot rise. Both the relationship and the love between the partners must become ever expansive and refreshed if they are to remain vital, alive and rewarding over time.
For this to occur the skill and art of communication must be worked on and fine-tuned the way a master woodworker hallows a delicate and beautiful bowl out of a standard, spindly, rough-hewn piece of wood. From my observation the number of us that have the ability to effectively communicate is dramatically less than the number of artisans who can create a work of art out of ordinary materials.
What most people consider to be communication is not communication at all. It is accusation and attack. It is being right and making the other feel bad and wrong. It is portraying oneself as the victim and assigning the exclusive role of the offender to the other. Ultimately the unspoken intention that lies behind these imposters to real communication is separation not union, and attack and defense not forgiveness and compassion.
The net result of every single interaction that you have with a loved one is that the intimacy, trust and goodwill that you have with each other will either expand or contract. There is nothing in between. This means that relationships are dynamic. They never stand still. They grow or die with every single exchange.
If either person in any interaction in a relationship is left feeling blamed, guilty, bad, wrong, put down or flawed, not only has communication failed but the relationship has been set back, rendering the liklihood of future success in communicating even more remote.
In my view to call what you are doing when you open your mouth and speak words communication, the person who is talking must embody four particular traits or features in their delivery. To personalize them they can be stated as follows:
1) Am I honest?
2) Am I vulnerable?
3) Am I humble?
4) Are all of my statements self-referential?
If you are not honest, vulnerable, humble and self-referential when you speak it would be wiser, in my opinion, to keep your mouth shut. It just won’t work! The only unknown will be how much the speaker is actually setting the relationships backwards.
Let’s delve further into these courageous, brilliant and beautiful ways to make it safe for another person to be in communication with you:
1. Am I honest? – Am I being congruent with what is going on inside of me? Am I willing to be known? Am I courageously sharing my truths, feelings, needs and wants without making demands on the other person and with few or no expectations?
2. Am I vulnerable? – Am I open? Transparent? Real? Am I showing my humanity and frailties or concealing them behind a false show of certainty or strength or self-righteousness or power? Do I feel defensive or defenseless, closed-hearted or open-hearted when I share? More importantly still, even if I am convinced that I am vulnerable as I speak, how does my significant other experience me?
3. Am I humble? – Am I tentative rather than authoritarian in my delivery? Do I realize that whatever I am saying is based on the flimsiness and narrowness of my viewpoint only? Do I realize that what I am sharing are my perceptions, interpretations and conclusions only and not the Laws of the Land? How badly do I have to have the last word or final say?
4. Am I self-referential? – Am I only talking about myself? Using “I..” statements instead of statements that begin with “You..”, or “You are…”, or “These are your issues”, or ” I feel that you…”.
Communication is a discipline and a skill and, like any other discipline and skill in life worth having, it is not achieved easily or overnight. Hundreds, if not thousands, of repetitions are required to become good at it. Failure and feelings of inadequacy are guaranteed. The goal is for both people to feel good after the communication and actually be happy that it took place. Not easy. Not common. But how badly do you want to keep the other person in your life? And how much do you want to share a life of peace, joy and abiding closeness with him or her? I call what I do with couples the Work of Love. It lives up to its name.