Case Study: communication in relationships
Sometimes the reason we have difficulty in relationships is that communication isn’t happening effectively. How we talk to each other doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be good enough that we have something to build and improve on. Once we have that first step we can learn to get better at it which in turn can lead to greater closeness, trust and partnership. Below are two examples of communication in a relationship.
[illustration by @tokyosexwhale]
[Note: the names and details of people mentioned in blog posts have been changed to preserve confidentiality and anonymity, sometimes people are a combination of more than one client.]
David first came to therapy because he was unhappy at work but it soon became clear he was also having relationship difficulties, he said towards the end of his third session “Most days when I get home form work I really want to have sex with my boyfriend but always end up chickening out. We only have sex about once a month and it’s always me who initiates this. It’s really driving me mad because he’s so wonderful, he’s amazing in other ways, but I always end up feeling like some kind of sex maniac, so I’ve given up trying to bring up the subject with him”.
David had been with his boyfriend for around two years and they moved in together six months previously. There are two issues present in David’s situation, a stark difference in libido and a difficulty in talking about it. What seems to be blocking communication is shame. But who’s shame is it? Maybe David’s boyfriend is ashamed of his low libido or perhaps sees sex as a shameful activity and so becomes defensive when David raises the subject. This may make David feel ashamed of his needs. Shame is stopping the communication and discussion as well as stopping a spontaneous and fulfilling sexual relationship. Perhaps addressing the communication issue will help the difference in sex drive. The two issues reflect one another but also may be contributing negatively to each other, creating a kind of feedback loop. Finding a non-threatening way to talk about shame may be a way forward for David in his relationship.
One way of doing this may be to look at other things that are more easily discussed. Sometimes when we’re not talking about sex, we are actually talking about sex. Take food for example, our attitudes and relationship to food can sometimes be a mirror of our attitude towards sex. Not so much our food choices but our appetite and how this manifests. Talking about food, how we eat together, what we won’t eat in front of each other, what we eat in secret, can sometimes tell us about our attitude and difficulties around sex. Or not. It might be books, or flower arranging or cars. If a subject is too difficult to discuss directly it might be worth examining something else that is less threatening to talk about.
David’s relationship difficulty is not going to be solved until communication is good enough that the subject can be addressed and this may have to be approached indirectly.
Jean had been separated from her husband for nine months when she came to see me. After twenty sessions she was still not able to convey to him that she wasn’t coming back. During the course of therapy she had become much more sure that she wasn’t going back. Her husband, it seemed, could not accept or even contemplate that she had left him and was waiting for her to come to her senses and return home. Any time she had attempted to discuss an ongoing financial arrangement or settlement of marital assets, he would become enraged and start shouting, shutting her down and accusing her of aggressiveness when it was clear he was being aggressive and she was trying to be as calm as possible. What had happened was that for many years she suspected her husband of not being honest with her, both financially or romantically. She had discovered at least one affair and several loans which couldn’t be accounted for. She had put-up with this for so long but eventually had not been able to endure his lies any longer and had left.
Her life after separation was much happier than it had been before. Her health had improved significantly, her social life had resumed and she reconnected with friends she hadn’t seen for years. Her relationship with her children was improving as was her relationship with her own siblings. By the end of our time together she was much clearer about what she wanted. Poor communication and a lack of openness was present for many years. It wasn’t the cause of her martial breakdown but it was an indicator of issues around attachment, present before they even met.
For Jean, communication with her husband was a barometer of deeper issues, whereas for David it may be a way of improving his relationship. Individual or couples counselling may help with issues around communication with your partner, if this is not possible or appealing for you “The Science of Trust” by John Gottman may be a useful alternative.