She: The bills are too much. We have to do something.
He: Well, I could work longer hours.
She: I hate for you to have to do that, but it looks like the only way.
He: I’ll talk to my boss tomorrow.
Some weeks later
He: I’m bushed, what a long day!
She: You’re so tired at the end of the day. I worry about you. And it is so lonely without you here.
He: (angrily) You told me we needed the money!
She: (Louder) I’m lonely, why can’t you hear that?
He: (still angry) Complain, complain! You’re ridiculous. I just worked 12 hours.
She: Why do I bother to talk to you. You never listen.
And with that they are off to the races, each getting angrier and angrier, each feeling more and more misunderstood and unappreciated. For me, this vignette is a kind of prototype of a serious lack of communication in relationships. Let’s look at what went wrong, and why. And then let’s look at what would have made it different.
Sometimes what we say doesn’t convey what we mean
They start out fine. They collaborate to deal with a difficult life stress, finances. But then they start to misunderstand each other terribly. He thinks she is criticizing him, telling him he did something wrong by working the extra hours. She thinks he does not care about her, or how she feels. Both are wrong.
The problem with communication is that although we think that what we say conveys what we mean, it doesn’t. Sentences, phrases, tones of voice, and gestures are mere pointers to meanings, they don’t contain meaning themselves.
That may sound absurd, but here is what I mean. Noam Chomsky, the linguist, explained years ago the distinction between “deep structure” where meanings reside and “surface structure” where the words themselves are. The surface sentence “visiting relatives can be a nuisance” has two different (deep) meanings. (1) It is a nuisance to one when relatives come to visit, and (2) It is a nuisance for one to have to go to visit the relatives. If one sentence can have two meanings, then meaning and sentence are not the same. Similarly, Schank and Abelson showed how social understanding is always an inference process. If I tell you that a guy went into McDonald’s and walked out with a bag, and I ask you what was in the bag, you would likely answer “food” or “a burger”. The information I gave you was only that 1. He went into McDonald’s, and 2. He walked out with a bag.
But you bring to bear all your knowledge and experiences with McDonald’s, buying fast food, and what you know of life and draw the boringly obvious conclusion that food was almost certainly in the bag. Nonetheless, that was an inference that went beyond the information presented on the surface.
Understanding anything requires inferences
In fact, the inference process is done so unthinkingly, so quickly, and so thoroughly that if I asked you a few days later what happened in the story the answer would probably be “a guy bought food at McDonald’s”, and not “a guy carried a bag out of McDonald’s.” Understanding anything requires inferences. It can’t be avoided. And you were probably right about what happened with this guy. But my couple here gets into trouble because they were each inferring incorrect meanings from the sentences given. The received meanings did not match the intended meanings being sent out. Let’s look at this all a little more closely to understand the significance of communication in marriage.
Misinterpretation of sincere intentions impairs the relationship
He says, “I’m bushed…” He means, “I am working hard to take care of us and I want you to appreciate my efforts.” But what she hears is, “I am hurting.” Because she cares about him she replies, “You’re so tired…” What she means is “I see you hurting, and I want you to know that I see it and I care.” She is trying to empathize. But instead what he hears is “You should not be working so hard, then you would not be so tired.” That he takes as criticism, and unfair besides.
She adds, “I’m lonely” What she wants is to have him acknowledge that she hurts, too. But he hears, “you are supposed to be taking care of me but instead you are hurting me: you are doing something wrong.” So he replies by defending his action to prove he is not doing anything wrong, “You told me…” While he is defending himself, she hears herself being blamed, and so since she did not get what she wanted (that he acknowledge her hurt) she repeats her message more forcefully, “I’m lonely.” And he takes that as another rebuke, so he fights back with more hostility. And it all gets worse.
Partners seek appreciation from each other
She is seeking closeness and intimacy by sharing feelings, even painful ones. And he is seeking appreciation for how he is taking care of her in practical ways. Unfortunately, neither is getting the meaning intended by the other while each is utterly convinced they understand exactly what the other means. And so each responds to an incorrect heard-meaning while missing the intended meaning. And the more they try to get the other to understand, the worse the fight gets. Tragic, really, because their caring for each other just gives energy to hurting each other.
How to get out of this? Three actions: non-personalize, empathize, and clarify. Non-personalize means to learn to stop seeing messages as being about you. Messages may affect you but they aren’t to reflect you. Her “I’m lonely” is not a statement about him. It is a statement about her, which he mistakenly turns into a statement about himself, a criticism of him and his actions. He inferred that meaning, and he got it wrong. Even his “You told me” directed at her is nonetheless not really about her. It is about how he is feeling unappreciated and wrongly blamed. This takes us to the empathize part.
Each needs to get in the other’s shoes, head, heart. Each needs to figure truly what is the other feeling and experiencing, where are they coming from, and check that out before assuming too much or reacting too quickly. Were they able to empathize accurately he could appreciate that she needs to be heard, and she could appreciate that he needs some acknowledgement.
Learn to be more open about what you need from your partner
Finally, each needs to clarify. He needs to be more open about what he needs, that he wants to know she appreciates how hard he is working and that she supports him. And she needs to clarify that she does not mean to tell him he did anything wrong, only that his absence is hard on her, that she misses him because she loves being with him, and she sees that this is how it must be right now. She needs to explain what being heard looks like to her. They need to clarify what they mean and what they don’t mean. In this, one sentence usually does not suffice, despite the assumption by most of us men that one should. A lot of sentences, all connected to the same underlying thought “triangulates” on the message and thereby clarifies it for the other. That helps guarantee that the meaning given better matches the meaning received.
Final take away
The point, then, is that communication in couples, and elsewhere for that matter, is a difficult process. The best marriage advice to troubleshoot couple troubles would be to pay attention to non-personalizing, to empathizing, and to clarifying can help couples avoid unnecessary trouble, and can instead bring them closer. Better communication in marriage is the precursor to a happy and fulfiling relationship with your spouse.