Couples in (mis)communication

For some, the scene is all too familiar. A couple are on a repetitive round of arguments, living the same events time and time again, repeating the same disputes and feeling the same powerful negative emotions. Why does this happen? And how might couple counselling, individual counselling or psychotherapy help communication?    


Communication of our thoughts and feelings to another person is the desire to be heard, to be understood. When a couple get into a groove of miscommunication, feeling neither understood nor appreciated, it can soon descend into a situation where what both people most fear is also what they most expect, and communication seems impossible. This is expressed in the following poem.

You and I

I explain quietly. You
hear me shouting. You
try a new tack. I
feel old wounds reopen.

You see both sides. I
see your blinkers. I
am placatory. You
sense a new selfishness.

I am a dove. You
recognise the hawk. You
offer an olive branch. I
feel the thorns.

You bleed. I
see crocodile tears. I
withdraw. You
reel from the impact.

Roger McGough

Relationship expectations

It is always the case that we enter a relationship with expectations of the other person. Problems can arise when expectations are unexpressed, not discussed, seen as unreasonable, not shared by both people, or perhaps unrecognised by the person who holds them.

These expectations are related to our earliest experiences of nurture, usually from our own parents. As children, we learn lessons about the world and how it works, what we need to do to have our needs met by a significant other, and how to adapt when our needs are not recognised. Our own experience of having our childhood emotional needs met, ignored, frustrated or punished sets the scene for adult relationships.  

There follows 5 possible lessons or abiding themes from childhood relationships. It helps to understand what our own lessons or themes are, as this will influence our understanding of romantic relationships.

Lesson 1: I am loveable. I do things I enjoy and those important to me join in.

Lesson 2: I am secure and loveable. Those who love me enjoy me just as I am.

A person who has learned lesson 1 or 2 above, who feels secure and loveable, will be open and non-defensive. This person, having a solid relational foundation, is likely to be eager to explore their emotional life, because they feel safe. It is highly likely that such a person will choose an emotionally-secure partner, in line with their early role model.

Other early messages become problematic when they reappear in romantic relationships.

Lesson 3: In relationships I will be punished and left alone.

Having learned lesson 3, that in relationships she will be punished and left alone, this little girl may grow up afraid of conflict, seeing any disagreement as leading inevitably to her punishment. She may therefore be a people-pleaser, and find a relationship in which nothing is ever resolved because she is afraid to deal with issues and the difficult emotions they stir up. Alternatively, with unresolved anger at the way she was treated, and feeling that tender emotions make her weak and vulnerable, she may act out the early shame of being unheard and unloved on her partner, re-enacting on another what her father did to her. At least, this way, she can feel strong as the one doing the punishing, instead of being the one who is punished. 

Lesson 4: I am alone in the world. I am not considered because I am not important. 

The boy who learned lesson 4, that he is not considered because he is not important, is likely as a man to unconsciously try to replay the past and put it right, seeking a partner with whom he feels alone and unimportant, in the hope that this time the love interest can notice him more. He may also idealise someone beyond what is realistic, and then unconsciously look for ways to feel disappointed, unimportant and let down when the non-ideal reality inevitably breaks through. 

Lesson 5: Others fail me, so I have to be strong and stand up for myself. 

This girl will most likely gain an adult reputation as a strong, reliable person, not to be crossed. In relationships she will be a practical person who makes sure things get done. Negative responses such as criticism, disappointment and anger may be easily expressed, but tender emotions are likely to feel dangerous. The central issue of trust means she finds emotional intimacy very difficult.      

We see that, in all these cases, children do not learn primarily from what their carers say: they learn from the visceral, emotional experience of what their carers do. These are powerful lessons for a child. Individual incidents, unless traumatic, are not usually of long-term significance: what matters is the general atmosphere, the repeated experiences which build up an internal narrative of expectations.

Understanding the lessons: challenges and opportunities

Now let’s imagine that two of these adults form a romantic relationship. The man who has learned lesson 4 – I am alone in the world, not considered because I am not important – seeks a love partner with whom he can feel safe, as he didn’t feel safe with his parents. He chooses the strong, reliable woman who learned lesson 5 – others fail me, so I have to be strong and stand up for myself. The woman who learned lesson 5 seeks a man who won’t get too close, since she finds it difficult to trust anyone. She chooses the man who learned lesson 4 because he is quiet and undemanding, with the added advantage that he won’t challenge her need to be in control. On the social level, this looks like an ideal match that will suit them both. On the emotional level, he yearns for the closeness he didn’t receive from his parents and so he has idealised her. But he has chosen someone who is overtly critical and easily disappointed, so his idealisation often collapses and he feels alone and unimportant, reinforcing his early narrative that he is alone in the world. He wants tender emotions and true intimacy but, because she finds this dangerous, the relationship brings to the fore her struggle with trust.   

Since this relationship challenges them both to face their deepest vulnerabilities, there are inevitable difficulties. They may come to see their relationship only as a round of repeated conflicts. But with goodwill, exploration, and further understanding on both sides, if they can see each other as resources to learn from and draw on, this relationship can potentially offer growth for them as individuals and as a couple. He represents vulnerability, which can be her point of growth, not having to work so hard at her defences, learning to enjoy letting her guard down. She represents strength, which can be his point of growth, learning that it is OK to be noticed, to stand up and be counted. He wants security so, by teaching him strength, seeing him grow, seeing his appreciation, she may thereby learn to share more and trust more.   

How therapy can help

One key task in therapy, then, is to recognise the early messages received by both partners, and thus to understand each others’ unspoken expectations. The narrative learned in early years drives the choice of romantic partner, in a bid to unconsciously confirm early lessons. These early lessons create a script for the person to follow in relationships, such as I am secure, loveable and enjoyable; or I am not allowed to be important; or I fear punishment if I express myself; or I have to be strong because others are unreliable.

The theoretical example above is intended to illustrate one key point: it is important that expectations, developed in childhood, are recognised. Once we understand this, we can see how it is that expectations drive the conflicts and arguments; and then recognise what each person brings that can help the relationship develop and grow. Once this is clear, individuals and couples can choose to continue confirming the script, the restricted vision of what they are ‘allowed’ to have, or to identify and seek positive experiences that can change it, creating a more affirming and loving relationship, more in line with what each partner really needs to thrive and grow. 


About Ian Pittaway

Ian is a psychotherapist and writer with a private practice in Stourbridge, West Midlands. Ian’s therapy is integrative, chiefly comprising key elements of transactional analysis, object relations, attachment research and person centred therapy. Ian has a special interest in trauma recovery and bereavement.

To contact Ian, call 07504 269 855 or click here.


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