Why you’re (probably) not a great communicator

Man writes 'I LOVE U' in the sand for his sweetheart, 1920-60.
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One of the ideals of modern relationships is that both parties will be ‘good communicators’. ‘Communication’ is held to lie at the heart of a thriving partnership.

But what is ‘communication’? It isn’t – of course – merely talking. One wouldn’t count as a good communicator simply on the basis of being able to keep up a lively patter about the weather or serving up witty anecdotes about the local team.

Good communication means the capacity to give another person an accurate picture of what is happening in your emotional and psychological life – and in particular, the capacity to describe its very darkest, trickiest and most awkward sides in such a way that others can understand, and even sympathise with them. The good communicator has the skill to take their beloved, in a timely, reassuring and gentle way, without melodrama or fury, into some of the trickiest areas of their personality and warn them of what is there (like a tour guide to a disaster zone), explaining what is problematic in such a way that the beloved will not be terrified, can come to understand, can be prepared and may perhaps forgive and accept.

But most of us are, of course, appalling communicators – and that is because there is so much inside of us that we can’t face up to, feel ashamed of or can’t quite understand – and we are therefore in no position to present our depths sanely to an observer, whose affections we want to maintain. Perhaps you have completely wasted the day on the internet. Or you are feeling sexually restless and drawn to someone else. Or you are in a vortex of envy for a colleague who seems to be getting everything right at work. Or you’re feeling overwhelmed by regret and self-hatred for some silly decisions you took last years (because you crave applause). Or maybe it’s a terror of the future that has rendered you mute: everything is going to go wrong. It’s over. You had one life – and you blew it. There are things inside of us that are simply so awful, and therefore so undigested, that we cannot – day to day – lay them out before our partners in a way that they can grasp them calmly and generously.

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Yet where we don’t ‘communicate’ a message, we still manage to get our points across, but just in toxic forms. As the expression goes, we ‘act out.’ Unable to pin down in a rational form what is ailing us, we may – for example – swear intemperately when someone asks us what is up. Or we go silent. Or we manically avoid subjects.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that we don’t only want our lovers to understand us. Certainly we want to be understood, but even more badly, we want to be loved – and when there appears to be an incompatibility, where we have no faith in our ability to get the tricky sides of us across, it is the truth that will be sacrificed – and yet will leak out in toxic symptoms nevertheless.

Why do we find communication so difficult?

One: No good role models

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We learn to speak by hearing others speak. And in particular, we learn to speak about tricky topics because we hear others discussing them elegantly and kindly.

But most of us did not grow up around ‘good communicators’. Parental figures may have loved us, but they did not pull off the trick of describing the darkness within in timely, sane and reassuring ways. Instead, they acted out. They came home from work and shouted at us or the other parent because a colleague had humiliated them or they set the dishes down with a bang because they were feeling sexually neglected. A hugely damaging precedent was set.

Two: Can you be ‘bad’ and yet still – overall – good?

In the ideal upbringing, those who loved us would be able to do so without demanding that everything about us be good. They could also tolerate that we could – sometimes, for a while – be violent, angry, mean and sexual – and yet still remain essentially acceptable.

This would give us a vital backdrop for our later confessions, an impression of fundamental acceptability. One could be, more or less, oneself and be confident that a loved one could – so long as things were explained properly – understand. We wouldn’t need to grow up into liars for love.

Father & Son Talking, Son Is Leaning On Father.
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This would be particularly true around sex, which is the most ‘shameful’ event to hit the life of any adolescent. Ideally, it would be possible to encounter unnerving aspects of one’s own erotic drives (the longing to do things which in any other context would seem dreadful; the longing to be – in bed – violent, disrespectful, crude…) without feeling that the whole of one’s nature would be deemed sordid and deranged.

But mostly we come from backgrounds which fall far short of this ideal. We feel that if we ever lose our tempers with our partners, we will be revealed as essentially brutish. Or if we confess to having some lazy sides, we will be condemned as layabouts. Or if we outline some slightly off-beat sexual tastes, we’ll descend into depravity and perversion. Or if we reveal our worries about work, we’ll set off a panic about our fundamental ineptitude. All this rather than feeling confident that we are basically, where it counts, essentially normal and decent people facing the typical run of chaotic and unruly desires and challenges endemic to every worthwhile human life.

Our tendency to get disgusted with ourselves – and therefore to assume that others will judge us harshly – is the central obstacle to communication. Shame robs us of the capacity to put our case sensibly and plausibly. It makes us long to conceal our failings; we feel the only way to protect ourselves and retain some quantum of dignity is to go silent. It’s not arrogance or the idea that one’s partner has no right to know. It is sheer terror that one’s self-loathing will be intensified to an unbearable degree by the presence of a witness.

Three: It will hurt you too much to hear this

Neglectful parents aren’t, in this area, the sole problem.

There’s an even more dangerous possibility. The parent who loves fiercely, with enormous generosity, with depths of self-sacrifice – and whom one adores back. Except it seems they need one to be a certain way. They cannot be disappointed. They are fragile and it is one’s job to help keep them intact.

“If I tell you this bad but true thing, you will be deeply saddened and hurt. You won’t ever be able to take it.” A child might learn this way of thinking when confronted by a deeply loving and tender parent, who (whatever the truth) gives the impression that they could easily be hurt by witnessing part of your personality which doesn’t fit their preconceived ideas.

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If you told them that you loathed the cello, it would wound them terribly, for they specially arranged for you to have lessons, they were so proud of you; and they saved up to buy the instrument for many years. Or if you tell them you hate going to visit your grandparents on Saturdays, it might be experienced as an agonising betrayal from which they might never fully recover. Or if they knew what you get up to late at night under the sheets…

This alerts us to the reciprocal nature of good communication. We must strive to tell the truth about ourselves honestly and kindly. But, from the other side of the equation, we must also strive to be the sort of people who can take the truth with grace, who don’t set the bar of acceptability so high that we leave others no chance but to tell us lies.

Four: No one can understand me

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It’s no surprise if we sometimes think that communication will never work out. We have failed so often in the past. Our history is full of failed attempts. We’ve tried to tell our partner something and it hasn’t worked. So, we give up. Forever.

But, to inject hope into the situation, this fear is governed by a false assumption: the idea that we can’t learn how better to communicate what is going on inside us. However, if we come to the view that it is in fact extremely challenging to communicate and that no one can be expected to do so automatically, then we may interpret past failures more generously.

The fact that it didn’t work out in the past isn’t decisive. We just need to learn to accept the darkness, to reduce fear, to present ourselves calmly, not to give way to self-loathing… We need to go to school in this area as well.

Communication in relationships sits within that huge neglected category of things that we need so badly to learn how to do, but which we have tended to assume we must know about instinctively from the start – to our and our lovers’ immense cost.