Is it a communication problem?
In my work with couples over three decades, the number one presenting complaint is “We are having communication problems”. I affirm their statement, nodding my understanding, but say to myself, “That’s really not their issue”. This may sound presumptuous, even arrogant. But I don’t come to that conclusion lightly. Rather, observing couples’ interactions through thousands of hours, I typically find that they communicate quite well. They are able to listen to each other, mirror the other’s perspective to some extent, contain their anger, hurt, and resentment, consider solutions, all while expressing their views with a reasonable level of clarity and kindness. Of course, there are exceptions. But by and large, their actual communication skills are quite developed.
So it begs the question, “Why is communication so difficult?” The key to understanding this is to look at what underlies their experience of communication difficulty. What is really going on is the couple’s struggle to communicate through conflict. Conflict changes everything. It ushers in raw and complex emotions. When a moderate to severe conflict arises, our emotional brain takes the reins and our feelings rise to a level of activation that leads us to feel threatened in some way. Threat responses are processed in many areas of the brain, particularly the amygdala, which detects negative stimuli that may trigger fear, the hippocampus, which is vital to learning and memory, the hypothalamus, which is involved in regulating body functions and sensations, and other parts of the limbic system and central nervous system or CNS. You can begin to appreciate how the co-occurring, coordinated, interconnected, and dynamic interactions of these neuropsychological processes are influenced by a given situation, relationship history, family of origin, and our own life experiences.
Impulsive reactions are counterproductive
So the same couple that can talk about their problems fairly calmly in the therapy office may look very different when engaged in a conflict that is fresh before they have a chance to process it. Heightened emotion narrows our perspective, is less open to options and possibilities, and activates a fight, flight freeze response. From an evolutionary perspective, this is functional. In other words, it helped us survive. For instance, thousands of years ago, if we saw odd movement in the tall grass, or orange, white and black stripes, we would dash for the nearest tree to evade a predator, even if it was only a deer. It wouldn’t be safe to wait until we were certain of its identity. But that kind of impulsive reaction is often counterproductive in a relationship. Avoidance, confrontation, and withdrawal often result. The conflict loop resets and couples experience never-ending arguments and other stubborn problems.
Behind every relationship, conflict is an unmet need
Polyvagal theory, introduced by Stephen Porges in 1994, describes three systems central to emotional regulation. The sympathetic (unconscious) nervous system is connected to fight/flight response; the parasympathetic nervous system promotes health, growth, and restoration, and the social engagement system promotes safety in connection, a necessary component of all healthy relationships. Behind every relationship conflict there is an unmet need. In cases where a couple is striving to meet those needs more supportively, they can often let their guard down, with support, and find better ways to connect, understand and appreciate each other.
But what about partners who are separated or divorced and continue to engage in seemingly intractable conflict, especially when children are involved. Like the couples described at the beginning of this blog, they too are typically very skilled in communicating. Just not with their ex-partner or spouse. The landscape of their post-separation relationship begins to resemble an all-out battle of angry words, accusations, counter-allegations, threats, litigation, social media bombing, and all too often, fighting over the kids. These situations are extremely stressful. Based on longitudinal studies, kids caught in the middle of these high conflict scenarios exhibit many emotional and psychological problems. They have lower academic performance, develop mood disorders, increased vulnerability to substance abuse, relationship conflict, poor problem solving, physical health problems, and even decreased longevity.
Separation escalates fight/flight responses
Unfortunately, many of these parents have suffered trauma in their life history and relationships. The intense conflict surrounding their separation from the other parent or former partner escalates their fight/flight response in ways that persist post-separation. Imagine feeling cornered by your arch-enemy and tasked with trying to decide with them everything involving your child—school issues, expenses, food choices, bedtimes, parenting style, introduction to a new partner, use of media, discipline, and the like. All without having resolved old issues that led to the separation in the first place. Intimate partner violence, an affair, false accusations, substance abuse, arguments over money, humiliating experiences, and other betrayals, for example. That is why these parents are often required by family courts to follow strict parallel parenting plans, rather than the more ideal co-parenting or collaborative parenting models in which kids thrive best. They cannot interact safely or calmly. They do best communicating virtually through Apps that limit any direct communication and document information exchanges in discreet yet transparent platforms.
Communication is key. But as I’ve discussed, it’s not easy, and often involves far more complex factors than simply sharing how you feel and what you need.
Michael Alter, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker with a Masters of Social Services degree from Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His professional experience encompasses a specialty in court-appointed Reunification Therapy. He is a member of the Oregon chapter and national body of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) and is the creator of Reunification Works and Synergy Coparenting Solutions, LLC.
In his practice, Michael serves couples, blended families, and those with parent-child challenges, trauma, stress, sexual and emotional abuse, divorce adjustment, anxiety, depression, and anger management issues to new a few.