The woman on the phone thinks she has told me why she and her husband of only a year want to come in for therapy.
“Does your husband agree?” I ask.
“He thinks we’re communicating just fine. He says I’m too demanding.”
We make an appointment for the following week. After we hang up, I muse about how very common her complaint has become. I’ve probably heard that phrase at least 800 times in the last 20 years. “We’re not communicating.” Common as it is, it isn’t a helpful way to think about what is going wrong in a couple’s best efforts to be together.
The truth is that people communicate all the time. It’s not possible to avoid it. Social creatures that we are, we are always sending out signals that others read, interpret, and respond to while we are reading, interpreting and responding to theirs. When two people who want to be close to each other instead find themselves in constant turmoil, it is not because they aren’t communicating. In fact, they are probably communicating far too much in their frantic efforts to try to get through to each other. The issue is that they aren’t understanding each other’s code.
We all know how personal codes work. Ask someone how she is. She responds, “Fine.” If said simply, we take it to mean that she really is fine or at least fine enough or maybe that she doesn’t think you’re the person to tell how she’s really doing these days. It doesn’t require a response and we both just move on. It’s the kind of exchange we do all the time. It just keeps the social wheels moving.
But imagine the interchange happening between a young couple at the end of a long and tiring workday.