Concealed issues suddenly brought to light can explode.

Michael and Gwen enter the counselor’s office and nervously take their seats. Michael fidgets and stares at the floor while Gwen sits upright, looks toward the therapist and utters the words that marriage counselors hear so frequently, they can almost say them in unison, “Doctor, we’re not like most of the couples you see… we don’t have any really serious problems; he doesn’t drink or beat me or chase other women—nothing like that. Our problem is that we just don’t communicate.”

“We just don’t communicate.” The cry is frequent and the assumptions are clear: Communication means a better marriage; more conversation means more connection; increased interaction means increased intimacy. It all sounds logical enough—or does it?

Brace for fallout

In the past, I might have rushed in with a glut of techniques to help a couple like Michael and Gwen accomplish their stated goal of better communication. But over the years I’ve learned that working to improve marital communication is a lot like exploratory surgery: The risk of what might be exposed is fraught with peril. Couples need to brace for the potential fallout that better communication may bring before they recklessly plunge ahead with the scalpel.

Good communication involves both partners being aware of their own thoughts and feelings and expressing them in an open, clear way. When a person communicates effectively, there is congruence between their inner experience and their outward expression. However, even an increase in direct and consistent communication doesn’t insure that a relationship will improve.

Let’s take television’s Cleaver family, for example. If Ward started to be more open with June, maybe he would finally tell her that he doesn’t like her award-winning meatloaf or share the fact that he’s still upset about her quitting her job last year. He might even confess that he just lost half of their savings by making a bad investment. If June risked better communication, she might reveal her dissatisfaction with their sex life, complain about Ward’s low income or disclose the fact that his inebriated brother made a pass at her last Thanksgiving.

Partners conspire to restrict and filter their interactions because they sense the danger involved in expressing themselves more openly. Once this pact of limited communication is broken, the lid of Pandora’s box can blast open.

The conspiracy not to tell

Marriages are often held together by a joint conspiracy to limit communication. In many cases, an unspoken agreement is understood by both partners at a deep level—a level of fear, safety and security. Partners conspire to restrict and filter their interactions because, deep down, they sense the danger involved in expressing themselves more openly. Once this pact of limited communication is broken, the lid of Pandora’s box can blast open and an explosion of issues that were previously concealed can fill the air.

Open communication always forces unspoken needs, hurts and resentments that lie beneath the surface to spring forth. The stability and harmony that noncommunication preserved are shattered once newly voiced concerns break the calm. This disruption can certainly be a positive factor in making a marriage better, but only if the partners are prepared and equipped to deal with the issues and conflicts that erupt.

To chance such openness, you need strong confidence in your spouse’s devotion and commitment to the relationship. You need to trust that your mate is ultimately “with you” rather than “against you.” You have to believe that he or she has your best interests at heart, especially when the two of you don’t see things eye to eye. An atmosphere of safety and security has to exist so your opinions, needs and wishes can be revealed without threatening either your integrity or the integrity of the relationship.

Sudden conflict

Within this context of safety, partners also need confidence in their ability to negotiate and resolve conflicts. It is essential to have a mutual commitment to finding solutions that satisfy both parties. If I have faith that my partner is invested in my happiness and well-being, then I can be free to communicate honestly without the fear of being taken advantage of, ridiculed, degraded or abandoned.

Apart from the safety of a secure relationship and confidence in the ability to negotiate conflicts, couples should be wary of simply “improving communication.” The truth is, good communication in and of itself does not make a relationship better. Instead, good communication exposes conflict that when effectively dealt with, can promote a more open and intimate connection.