Communication Problem? What Does That Mean Exactly?

"WE HAVE a communication problem." Often this is the response I hear when I ask a couple why they've come for marriage counseling. When I start questioning them about what this statement really means, I get a variety of responses.

One woman blurted out that she is absolutely panicked about their financial future. Everything she reads predicts that she and her husband aren't going to have enough for retirement. On further questioning I find that she resents her husband because he's been in charge of their savings and somehow she thinks he should have saved more.

But she's not willing to bring up money because she doesn't want to cut her spending. She enjoys buying for her two grandchildren and shopping at craft shows. "This is my pleasure," she says. Her husband doesn't bring up money because he's aware of his wife's resentment. "I'm not getting into that hornet's nest," he says. Also, he's planning to retire at age 62 and he doesn't want those plans altered.

Feelings about their financial picture overshadow the marriage, and many topics have become taboo. They don't discuss vacations or retirement plans. They don't talk about needing a new roof or updating the kitchen. They don't freely show each other purchases they've made or discuss gifts they want to give to the children. Her resentment over lack of money also affects their sex life.

Although this couple say they have a communication problem, when you break it down, they really have a money problem that they are unwilling to tackle.

For some couples a communication problem really means the man won't talk. He shares little about what he thinks or feels. And when she talks, he's only mildly interested. It may be that the man is shy about revealing inner thoughts and simply needs to learn to speak out loud on what he's thinking. Or it may be that when he does share his thoughts, his wife interrupts or criticizes what he's saying. She must learn to let him talk without interrupting or critiquing.

A communication problem may also mean that the husband promises to come home at a certain hour and then doesn't do it. Or the wife fails to stick to her commitment to keep her belongings picked up. This "communication problem" could easily be solved if they would keep to their agreements. A communication problem may translate into the couple's being unwilling to discuss anything that has the potential for conflict. Both may be afraid of anger, so they only talk about surface issues. As a result, neither feels close or emotionally connected with the other.

When some couples say they have a communication problem, they mean they can't come to terms with a particular issue. They lack negotiation skills. For example, he wants to go out with friends on the weekend and have a good time. She wants to stay home and have family time with the children. This couple could negotiate. Friday night is family night. Saturday night is for the two of them alone or with friends. Sunday is negotiable.

If you hear yourself or your mate say, "We have a communication problem," think about what this means in your relationship. Once you define the issue or issues that underlie this statement, you'll be able to tackle the true problem.

Doris Wild Helmering is psychotherapist in private practice in St. Louis. Doris has written eight books that each provide practical advise and proven steps to solve communication and relationship problems. Her latest book, Think Thin, Be Thin applies her successful approach to weight loss. She is a frequent radio and TV guest, appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show and Good Morning America. Doris has published articles in many national magazines and newspapers. Visit her blog at

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