Tiffany Hall, MFT, Contributing Writer
In the five years I’ve been practicing as a couple and family therapist, I’ve worked with several couples that come to me in some form of crisis. Though the context of the crisis is different, they all cite the catalyst for the breakdown of their relationship as one thing: communication problems. The question is, why are so many couples having problems communicating and what is causing these problems?
It goes without saying that men and women communicate differently. Hundreds of books, articles, and songs have talked about this very subject. Within the black community, cultural expectations about gender roles and a disproportionate amount of households spearheaded by single mothers have shifted the baseline for what we may perceive as healthy communication. Many men have been socialized to believe that masculinity means distancing themselves from every emotion except anger. Any hint of vulnerability can be met with “You’re being soft” or “Man up!” Inversely, many women have been taught to be nurturers, and often feel responsible for the emotional well-being of others, sometimes at the expense of their own.
Also, while men are taught to be emotionally autonomous, women are socialized to seek emotional connection. This leads to one of the most common dynamics seen in couples with communication issues: the Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic. The Pursuer in the dynamic craves connection, and will often want to deal with conflict head-on (The often-dreaded “We need to talk” ).
Distancers, on the other hand, react to conflict by creating physical and emotional distance. This can lead the Pursuer to feel rejected or abandoned, which causes them to press the Distancer more (Why don’t you want to talk about this? You always run from problems!”) This dance of pursuit and distance leaves couples trapped in a relentless cycle that can lead to bigger problems such as infidelity, lack of affection, or even divorce.
While gender roles have a huge influence on who fits into the position of the Pursuer or Distancer, people find themselves playing either of these roles at any given point in the relationship. When caught in this cycle, it’s important to do the following:
- Hold yourself accountable. It’s easy for relationship partners to point their fingers at each other in examining their own roles in the relationship dynamics. The only behavior that we can control is our own.
- Give your partner space. This may be especially hard for Pursuers. Sometimes people need time and space to process feelings individually before working on them together.
- Don't make your relationship problems anyone else's problem. After getting into it with your partner, your first instinct may be to go and call your mother or your girlfriend and tell them what happened. While it’s perfectly fine to vent and seek advice from your loved ones, sometimes letting your loved ones in on your relationship problems can be more harmful than helpful. What works for your Auntie Pam and Uncle Fred might not work for your relationship. Also, your loved ones may be naturally biased to take sides out of loyalty.
- Go to therapy. Sometimes a therapist, counselor, or pastor can provide a more objective view of your relationship problems. A therapist trained in couples’ counseling can help you and your partner learn to handle conflict in a healthier way. It also doesn’t hurt for partners to go to their own individual therapy to get in touch with negative things that they may be contributing to the relationship.
All couples experience communication issues at some point or another in their relationship. However, the mark of a healthy couple is one in which each partner acknowledges the differences in their communication styles and learns to work through them.