Clear communication is considered foundational in good relationships, but in relationships with close emotional ties, the ability to communicate with vulnerability is what creates intimacy and a deeper, more secure bond. Exploring what couples mean when they tell you they want to learn to communicate better with one another entails assessing what gets in the way of partners sharing their deepest emotional truths. I liken it to someone who has always played competitive card games learning a different game in which they risk showing their cards. Helping couples create the safety to allow vulnerable sharing is key; at the same time, sharing emotional truths is what helps create that safety.
There can be an underlying transactional nature to many of the communications we engage in daily with family members, bosses, colleagues, friends, and strangers. Because many communications with others function as informational exchanges or as a means to an end, it can be challenging to shift into a non-strategic way of revealing oneself that is more about deepening presence. Examining the assumptions, hidden motives, and unconscious beliefs that sometimes undermine attempts at vulnerability helps people in therapy explore the relational benefits of risking greater emotional transparency.
Being able to express feelings in the moment without acting on them is a critical aspect of effective communication. It helps couples assume more responsibility for their internal experiences and reveal these experiences to one another with greater self-acceptance and clarity. Many verbally skilled, intellectually sophisticated couples are accustomed to analyzing and interpreting their own and each other’s emotions as a way of avoiding the discomfort of what they feel. Yet it’s precisely this capacity to know, experience, and share the primary colors of universal human emotions such as sadness, fear, love, happiness, and anger that connects human beings to one another and helps them see past their own projections, fears, and accumulated historical narratives.
Communication as a form of self-protection needs to be a choice rather than a reflexive, across-the-board default setting.
In AEDP (accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy), creating a space for these submerged emotional experiences so as to more fully metabolize them within a supportive, loving connection is the crux of the healing work. Although it’s important and necessary for all of us to be able to use communication as a form of self-protection or persuasion in our daily lives, when a couple comes in wanting to heal or deepen connection, each partner will need to practice staying present for their own and the other’s unsettling emotional realities. Slowing down communication through techniques such as the Imago Dialogue can also help people manage their own emotions better while simultaneously revealing more of what they feel. Communication as a form of self-protection needs to be a choice rather than a reflexive, across-the-board default setting.
A Couples Communication Exercise
One fun, experiential way therapists can help couples differentiate between controlling, defended, and open emotional communication involves a pack of cards on which simple, emotional “I-messages” have been written in advance. These I-messages might include statements such as “I’m scared,” “I feel anxious,” “I’m angry at you,” or “I feel like a failure.” In this “Show Your Cards” exercise, decide who will be the cardholder and who will be the card receiver, then give the cardholder the deck of I-message cards. Instruct the card-holding member of the couple on what to do with each card one at a time while the listening partner receives the messages.
- Card 1: After glancing at the card, express something you think will hide the true I-message. For example, if the card says, “I’m scared,” you might say, “I’m happy.”
- Card 2: Toss the card in the direction of your partner as you express the I-message. For example, if the card says, “I’m angry at you,” call out, “I’m angry at you!” as you toss the card.
- Card 3: State the I-message as you make eye contact with your partner and show your partner the card at the same time.
After each different card enactment, talk about how it felt for the cardholder to both deliver (or hide) the messages on the cards and how it was for the listening partner to receive each true (or disguised) I-message.
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