Building Communication with Relationship Therapy

Most couples will argue from time to time. For the most part, this is normal behavior, because loving someone doesn’t necessarily mean always seeing eye to eye. Disagreements are to be expected now and then. Oftentimes, the solution presented will be to improve communication. Magazines frequently supply bullet-pointed lists on how to do this, much like they do to advise readers on how to lose weight. Such lists can range from mildly helpful to significantly damaging.

Connection vs. Communication

Dr. Steven Stosny has treated over 6,000 clients for various forms of abuse, violence, and anger. He works as a consultant in family violence for the Prince George’s County Circuit and District Courts as well as several mental health agencies in Maryland and Virginia. Dr. Stosny also founded CompassionPower in suburban Washington D.C., a sort of “compassion bootcamp” for those suffering from emotional abuse. On the effectiveness of these easy-to-digest lists in magazines, Dr. Stosny states: “It’s not that communication tips are inherently bad. The better ones are like the better diettips: eat less, move more; speak respectfully, listen attentively. They’re unhelpful because people do not communicate primarily by words but by emotional states.”

According to brain imaging, we tend to make our judgments on what a person is saying based on their emotional tone. This includes body language, facial expressions, how distracted they are, eye contact, and tone of voice. Moreover, this judgment occurs before the part of the brain that interprets word meaning is activated. This can make communicating emotional responses to what another person is saying difficult, to say the least. For example, if we feel as though something our partner says is “stupid,” we might use kinder language to express how we really feel. Doing this, however, runs the risk of making us look disingenuous or manipulative. Because of this, Dr. Stosny explains that “Your task is not to say what you want to say in a better way, it’s to compassionately understand your partner’s perspective more fully, which you will certainly fail to do while thinking of your communication technique. Change your emotional state and the words will follow, but it doesn’t work the other way around.”

Dr. Stosny believes that communication stems from connection, not vice versa. According to his experience, relationship problems don’t occur because people can’t figure out better communication methods such as speaking more respectfully or listening better. According to him, it is for this reason that it’s actually misleading to say that people in relationships have communication problems at all! It might feel as though the problem is communication in moments of frustration and sadness, but the real problem is disconnection. When individuals in a relationship are disconnected, they communicate poorly, no matter what techniques they use or what words they choose.

The Problem with Thinking in Relationship Therapy Instead of Feeling

Such techniques, used when those in the relationship feel disconnected, Dr. Stosny explains, “makes them feel manipulated, and not just because the most popular ones are patently unnatural, more suited for a therapist’s office than a living room.” This is because communication techniques, such as those advised in magazines, almost always come with a hidden agenda employed by the person using them. Dr. Stosny says, “The goal is not merely to understand your partner or make yourself understood to your partner; it’s to get him or her to do what you want.”

In fact, many fights in relationships often begin with accusations of miscommunication towards one another. However, communication is not the underlying problem here. The real problem is a fundamental disconnection between partners. After all, connection essentially means being attuned with each other’s emotional states. This attunement isn’t always positive, but it cannot exist within a state of emotional reactivity either. In other words, when we are emotionally reacting through communication, we are often compromising our ability to actually understand what our partner is feeling. The key is to have a balance, not to select one over the other. Unfortunately, communication is too often prioritized over connection.

How to Improve Communication in a Relationship

According to Dr. Stosny, “Positive attunement occurs through interest and caring, i.e., one has to be interested in and show sympathy for the other. Interest and caring, like all emotional states, are conveyed primarily by facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice, not by words or communication techniques.” As such, he encourages individuals in relationships to ask themselves the following questions before assuming that the problem in their relationship, or with their partner, is communication:


  1. How curious are you to learn their perspective?
  2. Do you feel emotionally connected to them?
  3. Do you care about how they feel right now?
  4. What do you love and value most about them?

The importance of these questions, Dr. Stosny says, is that “You must convey that you will love and value your partner whether she/he agrees with you or not. Anything short of this devalues the connection – it’s not as important as what you want to talk about, thereby guaranteeing emotional reactivity.”

Relationships are More than Just Words

Relationship therapy can be a good forum for bringing these feelings and issues of connection out into the open to better understand them. Sometimes, bringing attention to these problems can allow couples to better address them. Therapists often can supply advice or suggest exercises to employ to remind individuals in a relationship to remember to consider how one another is feeling. Emotional connection and communication, however, are fundamentally two different things. “Emotional state,” Dr. Stosny says, “ is a mental state that begins with a resolve to show compassion and love.” It begins with a decision made early in one’s relationship to chose to feel connected. When we make this choice, we have a more reasonable chance that our partner will reciprocate this connectedness. This will then lead to better communication.