When you ask just about any couple for advice about how to succeed in marriage, their first response is usually, “It’s all about communication. You can’t expect your partner to read your mind!” While this advice is fine–I mean, it’s definitely not going to hurt your marriage–research has shown in the past few decades that it also misses the boat. By a long shot.
A recent study showed that couples’ marital satisfaction after attending a 15 hour workshop where they worked on their communication and love “skills” returned to where their satisfaction level had been before they even attended after only a short amount of time. This could be disheartening to read…If communication isn’t helping my marriage, then what else is left to try?
Well, Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight and developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy, has a possible answer to our distress. She has dedicated her life to discovering why we respond the way we do to our partners. The field has known for a while that skills training isn’t as long-lasting as the professionals like to claim, so she has been on a mission to find out what can be long-lasting and healing for a relationship. What she has discovered is that what creates safe, intimate, rewarding relationships is connection, not communication.
Developing a true connection is something not a lot of couples experience naturally because it requires A LOT of vulnerability, risk, and understanding of our own emotions before we can share with our partner. This sharing of our deepest fears and insecurities with each other, however, becomes the glue that holds our relationship together through the hard times to come. As Sue has worked with couples over the last 25 years or so, she has recognized a pattern that has changed the practice of couples therapy forever.
The pattern for many couples typically goes like this**:
We Want Connection
We start a relationship and we both want connection. We both crave acceptance, love, happiness, joy, peace, fulfillment–all of what we entered the relationship hoping for, right?
We Become Afraid
Somewhere along the line, our fears start getting in the way of these relationship goals (without us even knowing it…they were probably patterns we learned from our parents or some other previous relationships).
One of us becomes a “pursuer” in the relationship. We chase after our partner emotionally (initiating conversations constantly, wanting to solve problems in the relationship even when our partner doesn’t, calling and texting more frequently, etc.) because we need to know we matter to them. We need to know that we are their top priority and that they love us. We crave acceptance.
As we pursue, our partner becomes a “withdrawer” in the relationship. They also want to connect with us, but they become overwhelmed by our emotions and feel that they can never give enough because their “pursuing” partner always wants more from them. To keep the peace in the relationship and to self-soothe, they physically and emotionally withdraw from fights (leave the room, go for a walk, go for a drive, etc.) so they won’t blow up. They don’t know how to be enough for the pursuing partner, so they just withdraw to protect themselves from the intense feelings of inadequacy they’re faced with every time they can’t give their “pursuing” partner what they need.
We Miss Each Other
In our relationships, we become stuck in this difficult dance, and all we see is that one of us is “emotionally disengaged” and the other is “abandoned” and “left totally alone” in this relationship. All we see is the slammed door in our face or the yelling spouse trying to get us to engage with them in something we don’t know how to engage in. We are hopelessly lost and confused and missing each other emotionally at every turn, even though we communicate what we think we need to each other (i.e. “Help with the housework”, “Time to unwind after work”, “A hug and a kiss before bed”, “More listening, less fixing”, etc.)
We Don’t See the Real Issues
What we don’t see is that the partner who’s “alone” in the relationship really just needs to see and hear that they are their spouse’s first priority because they are scared to death that they come second to something in their partner’s life, which might mean they don’t matter or they’re not loveable. They have to chase after their partner emotionally to make sure they still have some value. What we don’t see is that the partner who’s “disengaged” is completely terrified of disappointing their spouse one more time by not responding correctly or with enough emotion, so they’re protecting themselves and the relationship by retreating. They have to keep their distance if they don’t want this thing to go south even faster.
We all crave connection. But this connection can’t happen until we can get below the level of anger and blame towards our partners and connect with and own our deeper fears and relationship needs. We can’t connect until we recognize that so much of the way we behave in a relationship is driven by emotions and fears we don’t even know how to access yet.
So, I guess communication has it’s place. You wouldn’t be able to share these fears and needs with your partner (once you recognize them) if you didn’t know how to look them in the eye and learn how to listen intently. But “communication skills” don’t help you hear and respond to your partner’s real emotional fears and wounds and vice versa. That’s what love is all about. Turning towards and responding to each other when you need emotional support on the most intimate and painful level. A.K.A. Connection.
**There are other relationship patterns that sometimes develop, too, but this Pursue-Withdraw pattern is far and away the most common. What can sometimes happen in longer relationships is the pursuer gets “burnt out” and turns into a withdrawer as well. Then the couple just avoids conflict altogether because the pursuer is tired of feeling rejected. This is a dangerous place to be because it means there is less connection and effort happening than before, which often leads to divorce.