Couples understand the need for and benefits of effective communication—in couples counseling they often describe their marital or relationship problems as resulting from a breakdown in communication of some kind. “We stopped communicating with each other,” or “We can’t talk without arguing” are a few of the mantras of spouses/partners in distress.
And for many of these couples, it is clear that certain strategies are missing in their communication toolbox, strategies that can offer them the relationship help they desire. But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes what is needed goes beyond what a handful of communication strategies can offer.
Let’s see why.
Meet Leora and Edward:
Leora and Edward started couples counseling seeking “communication tools” to help reduce conflict and bring them closer together. Both agreed that learning more effective ways to communicate should be the goal of counseling, and each eagerly embraced their new communication strategies. Within a few months, Leora and Edward reported significant improvement in their relationship, but then something interesting started to happen—a shift away from intimacy that couldn’t be blamed solely on a lack of communication skills.
Edward began working later and later hours soon after the relationship improvements occurred. And then one day he shocked his wife by telling her they had been spending too much time together (he exclaimed, “It isn’t healthy!”).
After initially wanting greater emotional intimacy with his wife (his stated goal for couples counseling), Edward dramatically changed his agenda and demanded more time with his friends (even though he already spent each Saturday with them playing softball and frequently had his friends over to the house, all of which Leora encouraged). As Leora described, “It was like he was now avoiding me every chance he got…I was so hurt and confused–things had been starting to go so well between us.”
When Communication Problems Mask a Fear Of Intimacy
Why did Edward abruptly change course and pull away from his wife? Could the couple’s initial complaint of emotional distance attributed to communication problems actually have been the result of a deeper issue for Edward?
Emotional intimacy isn’t for the faint of heart—such intimacy requires the courage to be emotionally exposed and vulnerable with our loved ones. This gives your spouse/partner enormous power: The power to make you feel deeply loved, seen and cared for, and inversely, the power to make you feel unloved, ignored and uncared for.
Edward discovered (like many of us do) that certain levels of emotional closeness made him anxious, and to regulate his uneasiness, to control his anxiety about feeling “too close,” he started to avoid his wife rather than talk about what was going on for him. There are many ways we push our loved ones away without even realizing this is what we are doing; and rather then self-reflect to make sense of our discomfort with emotional closeness, we externalize the problem by blaming our partner for being too needy or clingy.
For Edward (like all of us), his emotional discomfort was a potential self-growth opportunity. And with the help and encouragement of his couples counselor, here is what Edward learned about himself:
“It felt good being close to Leora, but then I reached a threshold of closeness and started to feel anxious. I know this sounds weird, but I was afraid of losing myself, like I would cease to exist independently of her if I allowed myself to really be open to our love and closeness…”
Once Edward was able to articulate his underlying fears (first to himself and then to his wife), the couple was able to directly communicate about the level of closeness they each desired and identify when anxieties started to emerge. This allowed Edward and Leora to consciously negotiate emotional intimacy rather than unconsciously pull away whenever one of them felt “too close.”
Are you able to openly and directly communicate your needs for emotional closeness with your partner?
Dr. Rich Nicastro