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3/12/2008

What we have here is a failure to communicate

Of all the reasons that a couple might give to explain how or why their relationship is troubled, the one that is probably offered most frequently is "communication problems." Could it be that marriage or involvement somehow renders people incapable of expressing themselves and understanding others? Not likely. In reality, the problem is usually not that people cannot communicate. Instead, the problem is that they are in conflict.

A wife complains that her husband spends too much time in front of the television, that he doesn't help with the housework, doesn't compliment her or pay attention to her, and doesn't appreciate the work she does. He says that she doesn't respect him or understand him, that she spends too much time with friends, and that she demands too much of his time. They both complain about the spending habits of the other and about the frequency of their love-making. They say they have a communication problem.

Communication problem? Is it possible that they can't figure out what the other is complaining about? It is clear that their needs, priorities and expectations are different. It is a conflict, not a misunderstanding. The problem is that they disagree and cannot resolve their disagreements. They both want something from the other and can't seem to get it.

I tend to believe that the focus on communication problems is a direct result of the 1968 film, Cool Hand Luke. In the role of a chain-gang prison camp warden, actor Strother Martin uttered what would become a famous movie line: "What we have here is a failure to communicate." Years later, he would repeat the line on Saturday Night Live, that being how famous the phrase had become. Perhaps the line resonated because it seemed such a simple or obvious explanation for almost any complexity. Or perhaps it was because it was absurdly ironic.

In the movie, Martin was speaking to Paul Newman, who in the role of Cool Hand Luke was a rebellious, recalcitrant and non-conforming inmate. Their characters were locked in an irresolvable struggle for control and domination. The line came after Newman made a disrespectful remark and Martin had beaten him to his knees. What Strother Martin was actually saying was that he would always win and that he was in charge. The twinkle in Paul Newman's eye said that their battle was far from over.

In relationships, communications are in fact frequently muddled, and for good reason. The wife does not express herself clearly because she does not wish to anger her husband. She does not want to seem unreasonable or appear to be nagging. The husband does not understand her because he is too busy offering excuses or denying that her complaints are valid. Their communications are muddled because neither wishes to appear to be at fault or to blame. They are not actually attempting to communicate. Instead, they are both struggling for control, while trying to appear righteous and innocent.

Ultimately, every argument they have is about the same thing: who is right and who is wrong. Rather than discussing the specifics of what they actually want, the argument comes to be framed in abstract terms such as appreciation, understanding, respect, cooperation and commitment. They might both try to appear accommodating, while giving not an inch of ground. Rather than working towards resolution, they are both attempting to defend their positions. Often times, couples will continue to struggle over who was right and who is to blame, even when they are basically in agreement.

And to explain this complex struggle and conflict, there is always the easy explanation: it's a communication problem.

It is, however, a tragic explanation. It is tragic because when the pointless and irrelevant discussion about who is right and who is at fault is set aside, and when their needs, desires and goals are communicated in simple, concrete terms, couples often find that compromise and accommodation would have been a simple matter. When guilt and blame are set aside, untenable demands become reasonable requests. Sorrow and forgiveness can emerge. Conflicting interests can yield to an awareness of common purpose.

When the focus turns from "a failure to communicate" and is directed towards the actual conflict, then a couple has something to work on: a problem that can actually be solved.


Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.