We Need Help Communicating!
Any therapist working with relationships will tell you that this is probably the most common explanation given by couples seeking therapy. When this is the entirety of what is needed, therapy is a fairly straightforward process. I like to teach couples a dialogue process that involves effective ways of improving how a message is sent and received. More about this later.
Usually there is a larger underlying pattern that is affecting message transmission and reception. As Archie Bunker once said to his wife Edith, "The problem here is that I'm speaking to you in English but you're listening to me in dingbat". As a therapist a number of common dynamics become immediately evident to me in that statement. First, there is the insult (which quickly cuts off open communication) and Archie's assumption that he is communicating clearly while it is Edith's listening that is flawed. Next, any real communication rapidly stops when two people go from exploring with one another to protecting or defending themselves. If you are protecting yourself that means that at some level you believe you are being attacked by your partner, even if just a little. Think about it! How many times have you been in a conversation that was rolling along smoothly when seemingly out of the blue it turned into an argument or conflict? Finally, as soon as exploring stops we will find ourselves defaulting to negative expectations and beliefs about our partner. Unlike a fine wine, these grow stronger not more pleasant with age. Archie becomes more and more convinced that Edith is a dingbat and, possibly, Edith comes to believe that her best way to deal with Archie is to ignore him.
Time in therapy is poorly spent trying to figure out whose assumptions are right. There is a saying in the business "Would you rather be right or happy?" Instead, each partner can learn to examine their default negative thoughts and assumptions, interrupt the process, and weaken the expectation/belief. This means that real, effective communication starts with yourself. It requires an openness to examine and explore the well-worn paths of your own beliefs and thinking.
When I am working with a couple I can tell when they're about to make big strides in communication. There is a willingness to explore with one another. A new pattern emerges with each person talking about what is happening for them, not what their partner is doing to them. They feel heard and understood. I can tell this is happening when the speaker no longer feels the need to repeat their thoughts, give countless examples, or bring up past grievances.
I love doing this work with couples. It is amazing to watch as they shed the negative patterns that cause distance between them and discover or rediscover the real basis for their attraction.