Meg Luce: ‘We can’t communicate!’ —The common cold of couples therapy |

Meg Luce: ‘We can’t communicate!’ —The common cold of couples therapy

Meg Luce

“We can’t communicate!” is what I most often hear when I pick up the phone to respond to a request for couples therapy. If you’ve ever felt this way, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Most couple’s therapists will nod their heads in agreement that this is one of the most common presenting problems. The real question is, why does it so often feel like communication is breaking down, and what can you do about it?

Communication Breakdowns

Sometimes communication feels like it is breaking down because partners snipe at each other after getting their feelings hurt. It can be hard to let your guard down and share hurt feelings from a place of vulnerability. For example, it’s harder to say, “I felt embarrassed when you corrected me in front of our friends” and easier to go with, “You acted like such an ass!”

Other times, feeling that you can’t communicate comes from a fear of wading into the tension of naming the problem. Rather than say, “I would like to talk about how we aren’t having sex anymore,” it’s less anxiety provoking to avoid the topic altogether. Years later, you might think, why did we let that happen?

Why does it so often feel like communication is breaking down, and what can you do about it?

The Past is Present

Each of these scenarios, either fighting or avoiding, come from feeling unable to talk about difficulties well. Whether we recognize it or not, we come to our adult relationships with plenty of messages from the past. In your family of origin, you may have learned that it’s not safe to express emotions, ask for what you want, or a whole host of other things that keep you from sharing your inner world.

Your beliefs from the past can intrude on your present-day relationship without your conscious consent. The good news is that once you begin to recognize the old internalized messages, you can choose to do things differently—ah, freedom! Not that this is easy (darn it), but it is absolutely doable.

Sometimes the problem isn’t so much that a couple isn’t communicating, rather it’s that they are communicating volumes of unpleasant information. Disdain and irritation can come across even with something as simple as “could you take out the trash?” Oh yes, we marrieds have a hard time NOT communicating! Whether it is an eye-roll to indicate, “your comment wasn’t funny and it kind of hurt my feelings,” or the TV blasting to indicate, “For the love of God, please stop talking!” or stony silence that says, “I struggle to bring up a sensitive topic with you.”

Maybe it’s not so much that couples can’t communicate, but more that it’s so challenging to communicate with kindness and respect about the important things in life. Even so, you don’t have to be in therapy to get started. You will have to remove some of your protective armor, which is challenging. But that same armor keeps you from letting in tender exchanges.

You CAN Communicate…Well

Here are some steps to help you communicate well about the things that matter:

1. Choose a good time to talk for both of you

2. Set positive intentions

3. Prepare for your partner to disagree and don’t take offense (tall order!)

4. Listen

5. Breathe

6. Listen some more

7. Ask if your partner is ready to listen to you

8. Take a break if things go sideways

At times you will fail. That’s okay! Try again later. Keep working at it. Exercise the muscle of self-control to keep yourself calm during the interaction.

The truth is, it’s not that we can’t communicate. It’s that we often communicate from the most primitive parts of ourselves. Instead, we can learn to communicate from the best parts of ourselves. This includes not only with our intimate partners but also with the rest of the world. Why not start today?

Meg Luce, M.S., is a Marriage and Family Therapist in Grass Valley specializing in helping couples create satisfying relationships. You can find her contact info at

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