The Trouble About Troubled Relationships
Each person has had a unstable relationship. We understand the signs--
poor communication, icy silence, blow-ups, cold shoulders, fights (verbal
or physical), and so one.
Even the connection with another that we have now, if we have one, is
probably not great. Subtler elements of the above problem-behaviors intrude
into our everyday interactions, even if we are relatively contented with
As an outpatient marriage and family therapist who deals a lot with
couples struggling with these issues, I have found a few common themes that
seem to make the difference between the "haves and the have nots"
when it comes to compatible and satisfying relationships.
We all know communication is fundamental, but what is not well know are
what "elements" of communication make for a great relationship.
It is one thing to say what we feel or ask for what we want. But
there is one crucial dynamic and two crucial areas that need to be
addressed. These three aspects of communication precipitate the
effective from the ineffective communicators.
The first subject is the dynamic of the communication itself.
What people do not realize is that there are actually two levels of
communication. I call these "content" and "process." Content refers
to the most superficial aspects of what is being communicated. It is
the "issue" or concern or topic. If I complain about my wife leaving
the cap off of the toothpaste tube, this is the content--the cap,
the toothpaste tube and her leaving the cap off. Only about ten
percent of what is communicated is actually communicated at the level
The more important dynamic is what I call process. This includes
all the non-verbal aspects that accompany the actual verbal description
of the issue (content). Non-verbal cues are things like intensity of the
spoken word, alacrity of the words, word choice, word timing and body
(which is actually quite full and complex). Process
comprises about ninety percent of what is actually communicated between
folks when speaking face-to-face. It still comprises up to fifty
percent of what is communicated even in telephone conversations,
because of the subtleties and richness of the voice mouthing the
A significant aspect of the content-process dimension is
congruence or incongruence. Congruence is when the speaker's
non-verbal signals agree with or say the same thing as the
words themselves. For example, if I am angry I should be frowning.
Incongruence is when the non-verbal cues are different or possibly just
contradict the verbal ones. For example, when I am angry I am smiling.
The two elements that most people omit when communicating are
articulating the process and validating. Articulating the process is
putting the non-verbal or process aspects of communication into words;
that is, actually describing what is normally non-verbal with actual
words. For example, if I were angry, normally I would show that
feeling by my non-verbal cues (genuineness, sincerity, etc.).
If I articulate my process, I just say I am angry, using just the
right word to capture the degree of anger (frustration, irritation,
miffed, and so on). In other words, I don't leave anything to chance.
I spell out exactly what I want to express at a feeling level, which it turns
about seventy-five percent of process communication.
The second area of communication is validation. This is when
I paraphrase or put into my words the communication of my partner
BEFORE I respond. And, I re-iterate the communication at both levels,
content and process. (It also is helpful if my partner "checks"
my paraphrasing to insure I don't miss anything.) This is the most
rudimentary and bare presentation of these very important and often overlook
or omitted dynamics and crucial areas of communication. For a very
detailed description, see my ebook, Why Relationships Fail.