We all know that communication is key to happy relationships. I teach interpersonal communication and conflict resolution classes and I know the positive impact communication can have in the couples counseling session. But what about the relationships that just refuse to improve? That no matter how many communication skills are learned, progress just isn’t made?
Some relationships are so entrenched in destructive patterns, that no manner of communication can fix them. When improved communication does not improve a relationship, I usually look to deeper reasons of toxicity.
When Communication Skills Don’t Work
Communication skills can solve a host of issues, help with understanding, improve problem solving and build relationships. But there are some things it can’t do. Communication, by itself, can not help a couple when…
- There’s a secret– sometimes relationships can not improve because one partner is keeping a secret. These secrets range from hiding an affair, a gambling addiction, a financial crisis, or an entire secret identity. If honesty and trustworthiness is not at the core of a relationship, it is doomed. Communication without full honesty is just lying to someone.
- There’s a lack of empathy– sometimes a partner simply can not or will not feel empathy for the other person. One partner refuses to put him/herself in the other person’s shoes because it makes him/her feel weak or vulnerable. This type of person can learn complex communication skills, but without compassion, the relationship will fail. Communication without empathy is just talking at someone.
- There’s a power imbalance– some relationships adopt a hierarchical structure where one person has more power than the other. This partner uses his/her hierarchical dominance to control the other person. Equal treatment, privileges, or priorities are not given to both partners. Communication without equality is just talking down to someone.
- There’s abuse– abuse comes in a lot of forms. Psychological, religious, financial, physical, sexual, emotional abuse occurs when one partner intimidates, harms, takes advantage of, or manipulates the other for personal gain, control or dominance. Communication without safety is just talking abusively.
- There’s apathy– some relationships consist of one highly motivated person and one apathetic person. The motivated person feels all talked out, and wants to see real action. However, if the conversations don’t result in tangible change, then communication is useless. Communication without follow through is pointless.
- There’s addiction– if addiction is present within the relationship (alcohol, prescription meds, marijuana, gambling, porn, etc.) counseling will offer little help until the addiction is addressed and treated. Communication without addiction-recovery is sickness.