In a marriage it’s good to have some effective tools and strategies for resolving conflict when it arises. There’s a particular brand of conflict I have seen over and over again that’s better to avoid altogether. Rather than resolving it, just don’t have it to begin with.
There are two components essential to all communication: 1) the message sent, and 2) the message received. Communication tends to go bad when these don’t match. One of the key messages sent in any relationship is the “I need” message. I need more time. I need more affection. I need more financial security. I need more respect. I need help with chores. I need more spiritual connection. This list could go on and on of course.
Communicating needs is a critical component of building intimacy in a relationship. Communicating needs should result in adjustment resulting in needs being met. This builds trust. This results in deeper connection. When this is reciprocal, when both husband and wife are able to communicate their needs and respond to the needs of the other, marriage is going to be very good.
Where this goes wrong is in the communication loop itself. One person communicates their need to the other. The other person totally interprets this in a distorted and self-focused way.
“I need more time with you,” she says.
Simple enough. She is giving him some very valuable information about herself. She is making the target for him very clear. She is handing him an “easy button,” making her need known in an overt way. With this information, he knows precisely what he needs to adjust in order to meet her need. This will result in increased trust and connection. Genius. But that is not what he hears or understands at all.
“I need more time with you,” she says.
Instead of hearing this and interpreting it as valuable information about her, he interprets it as a critical judgment of his own inadequacy. Once again I’m not doing enough. Once again I’m a failure. Once again all the things that demand my time that I do for us and for our family are unnoticed, and unappreciated. Once again I don’t measure up in this relationship.
She sent him information about her. He interpreted it as information about him. Of course you can switch the genders here. It can go either way and often does.
The arguments that ensue from this kind of communication breakdown are often emotionally charged and destructive. Trust is eroded. Connection is weakened. Much confusion results because both parties tend to think they are arguing about time or money or sex or parenting or romance or the underwear on the floor or whatever. But they aren’t arguing “about” anything. They are arguing about communication. They are fighting about fighting. They are trying to resolve a problem about their problem solving and the tools they are using are causing the problem. This creates an endless loop of conflict that will eventually result in one person becoming silent, refusing to communicate their needs and becoming invisible in the relationship. Or, they will leave.
When you hear a message about the other person’s needs and interpret it as a message about your failure, this is called Narcissism. This isn’t everything that entails Narcissism, but it’s a significant symptom. Everything is about me. Your needs are about my failure. This kind of self-focused approach to relationship short circuits intimacy on the front end of communication. When someone isn’t able to communicate their needs, intimacy will suffer. Trust will disappear. If every time someone communicates their needs it’s interpreted as a judgment of the other person’s failure or weakness, their needs are never really communicated at all. Communication involves both the sending and the receiving parts of the loop. When the receiving is distorted through a Narcissistic lens, communication doesn’t really happen at all. Communication requires two people and Narcissism allows for only one.
Is this a pattern in your relationship? Is it safe for your spouse to communicate their needs to you without fear that you will interpret it as a criticism of your weakness or failure?
Be sure to check back every week and read more from our 10 part series on narcissism.