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“We just don’t communicate!” a Conundrum in Couples Therapy

By Daniel Goldberg, Ph.D.

A funny thing happened when I picked up the newspaper the other day. I saw a research report that looked at communication in relationships. The research examined the life of couples and self-disclosure was highly associated with relationship quality. Oh no – the dreaded self-disclosure hypothesis! The research was supporting the very thing that strikes fear into the hearts of most men, i.e., the wish from their partner that they say more about themselves – their deepest longings, their hidden fears, what they dream about, etc. The research said what seems to be so obvious to many long-term relationships. Years pass and routines can dominate. Defenses build to hide the pain behind long-standing wounds and unconscious yearning. If only couples could dissolve their protective patterns that breed boredom, a freshness might enliven the emotional landscape. But one partner appears so “known” to the other. “What is left to self-disclose,” one might wonder.

I scratched my head when I read about this self-disclosure research. While it seems to state the obvious, I thought about John Gottman and his studies. Didn’t he find the opposite – that self-disclosure has nothing to do with people’s sense of closeness? Gottman had the same hypothesis-that deep, intimate conversation would characterize the best relationships. As people shared their intimate space with their partner, this form of communication would enhance the sense of connection. So he brought in the “best” relationships – the “star” couples, as he described them – and observed them for the weekend in the University of Washington behavioral lab. But to his surprise, his hypothesis was never observed. These couples talked about the comics, the mail, going to a movie, and ideas about what to eat. Where was the “deep stuff”? Little self-disclosure happened with any of the couples. Gottman thought he had wasted all his research time until his team discovered the hidden pattern. These successful couples “turned toward” each other 5 times for every time they “turned away” from each other. No self-disclosure at all; just statements like “sure,” “really?” “I didn’t know that,” or “that sounds good to me.” Turning towards each other.

So, what is a psychodynamic couples therapist to do with this new self-disclosure research refuting Gottman’s research? Well, I’m not sure. I’m still scratching my head about what we know and don’t know about the life of a couple. But here’s one guideline. When couples say that their presenting problem is “We just don’t communicate like we should,” I try to make sure to remember that I don’t know what they mean. This research reminds me to be humble in assuming that I know what this simple word – communication – means. But I sense it has something to do with giving one’s partner the sense that what they say and who they are matters. Maybe we communicate this attachment behavior with our eyes; maybe by sharing a hurt that just occurred; maybe we notice something terrific about the other; or maybe it’s our sense of curiosity after our partner describes a new singer they heard on the radio that day: “What did you like about her?”

It seems that research findings alone will never adequately answer commonly held assumptions about clinical work. These seemingly opposite findings push us to lean into the subjectivity of each couple, to remain curious and wonder just what did this particular couple mean when they say, “We can’t communicate.”

Dr. Goldberg heads the New Jersey Couples Therapy Training Program, a division within CPPNJ. It is a two year psychodynamic-systemic program. For more information, contact him at dcgphd@yahoo.com