Intimate communication is a major problem for many marriages. Partners often find it difficult to talk to each other or, when they do, they feel that what they said is being misunderstood.

As a result, couples either avoid talking or when they do talk, what they say is not “real”.  Specifically, discussions which involve anger or fear are some of the most difficult to have.

Certainly, learning how to speak in ways which are respectful of one’s partner and are non-attacking is important. However, simply learning to use I-statements is often not enough to enable couples to be able to talk intimately and constructively about their true feelings and desires with one another. Understanding that one needs to focus on one’s one feelings and wants is easier said than. It is much easier to criticize than to expose what is really going on inside your thoughts and feelings.

Thus, a major obstacle to good communication, apart from the words we use, when we talk, is our state of mind. More specifically, we have a natural fear and aversion to being vulnerable , i.e. emotionally undefended in front of another person. Nonetheless, only by overcoming these fears can couples achieve truly emotionally intimate communication. Let me explain how this is possible.

To begin , there are two different kinds communication” Public and Intimate.  For the most part, people act defensively in everyday life are do not allow themselves to be vulnerable. Defensive behavior is designed to protect themselves from harm. Instead of doing what ever they feel,  they act and present themselves in ways that are congruent with the social definition of a given situation and within commonly accepted behavior  expectations.  For example, when we come to stop sign, even though we may not feel like it , we stop. Like wise when in passing someone asks us how we are doing, regardless of what is really going on, we say, “Fine”.

Often however, there is a disparity between a person’s public persona and their inner experience.  When the boss asks you to work late, you may say, “No problem” but can feel quite the opposite. This difference exists because of a survival instinct that understands that one can only be “real” if it safe to do so. Telling the boss how you really feel may get you fired.

Thus, much of our life is lived to avoid being criticized or attacked and to fit in as much as possible. Religious precepts and community standards tell us what we should do and feel. And , most of the time, our public presentation stays within these boundaries.

The type of communication which takes place between intimate partners is very different.  When a couple first feels love and commitment for one another, they experience trust and safety. They feel accepted and understood. Without a sense of physical threat or emotional danger each may take the risk of sharing their inner experience of how they feel and what they want.

As the relationship continues , however, conflicts and disagreements may corrupt the idyllic sense of safety and trust and defensiveness and an aversion to revealing one’s inner experience can develop. Over time, poor communication habits can harden and honest communications can become more and more difficult.

To repair intimate communication, one must repair trust and ensure a sense of safety in each partner. If a person does not feel safe, they will not risk emotionally opening themselves or allow themselves to be unprotected in front of the other.

The path back following a break in the trust is not easy or quick. It requires effort and honesty and an ability to take responsibility for the acts which have broken the trust. The road back to safety takes making time and taking small, but reassuring, steps. For example, demonstrating over time that each can respond to conflicts with out name-calling or abusive behavior , eventually has a healing effect. The process is slow and is littered with setbacks and missteps.  You don’t have to be perfect but you do need to demonstrate that you are reasonably reliable and that there are secure boundaries which will prevent extreme or violent behavior.

Achieving intimacy with one’s partner is hard work but it is worth the effort. Experiencing deep understanding and acceptance of your real feelings and wants is indescribable  and, as the credit card  commercial says, is priceless.  Life can sometimes be too much to handle all by your self and having a trustworthy partner with whom to share threatening challenges makes all the difference in the world between success and failure.

A final factor which complicates improving intimate communication is the fact that the individual may not have learned to be defensive from their partners.  Fear of being vulnerable may persist even when the partner is acting in a trustworthy way.  Old trauma from the past can interfere with and distort a person’s perception of the present and make a safe situation appear dangerous.  This reality explains why self-help books alone are often not enough to adequately help a couple significantly improve the way they talk to one another or achieve true emotional intimacy.  Indeed that is the function of professional marriage counselors who are trained to not only teach communication skills but also to help the individual as well as the relationship heal and grow.

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC     7 24 2019

Image acknowledgement and source attribution:  sach_vega_istock