That’s the answer to all relationship problems, right? Just communicate! It’s so simple! Gosh, to imagine people still have conflict in relationships. We must all just be willfully avoiding the perfectly obvious solution.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had (okay, am having) some catastrophic relationship issues that come from failure to communicate: from lying and misleading to withholding information to simply not realizing that something needed to be said. Communicating often and well is absolutely requisite to any relationship.

But it’s not sufficient. And it won’t solve all your problems.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Communication is not simply the dispassionate exchange of factual information. Relationships are complex social situations that each party understands in a different context, sometimes wildly different. We’re dealing with social norms that tell us from early childhood that certain things are simply understood, and discussing them can easily be perceived as gauche if not accusatory. Two vanilla monogamous people may find it challenging to discuss monogamy beyond briefly acknowledging that their relationship is “serious,” for instance. Digging in to what monogamy means to each of them could normatively be perceived as looking for a loophole. The discussion itself can communicate intent to violate the terms of the relationship. That particular issue is lessened for those of us who practice relationship styles well outside the norm–D/s or polyamory or to a certain extent queer relationships–but there are other norms we’ve internalized. We all have; one can’t live in a society without picking up some of its customs. It’s work to understand that conversations that challenge those norms aren’t loaded. It’s important work, and the results can be transformative, but don’t dare pretend it’s easy.

Silence communicates.

Shutting someone out can send a clearer message than any words. When someone shuts down, they’re often communicating avoidance or anger or hurt very clearly. What they aren’t doing is allowing communication to be productive or reciprocal. It’s topic-ending, which can be okay, even necessary. If the shutdown is complete, and you can’t talk at all…well, it stops being a relationship at that point, doesn’t it.

Listening communicates.

Silence isn’t always negative. Attentive listening can show that you care when no amount of telling your side could. Stopping to absorb information creates communication that is genuinely two-way.  Being careful to understand what your partner means by their actions and words, saying “what I hear you saying here is this, is that what you mean?” is not just listening, it’s learning their language. We may think we’re speaking the same one but we never are, not completely. You will always be translating each other into your own native tongue. That’s okay. In fact that’s unspeakably beautiful, when you’ve learned how. Finally, silence stifles impulse. A pause helps to process and think before a reply. Sometimes it has to be long. I’ve seen them last for days, when a matter requires  a great deal of consideration. Most issues, most people, have neither the need nor the patience for that, but a few moments to collect and speak with care is well worth practicing.

The body communicates.

Snuggling closer, smiling, reaching for a partner’s hand. Shrinking away, looking down, folding into oneself. Running a hand up their thigh, a grin that shows teeth, letting down one’s hair. We read these. It’s a kind of intimacy, learning the look that means joy or lust or grief that is unique to this person. There’s a reason many people find text messages and IMs problematic–words alone can convey so many things. Tone is difficult enough to read in person. Over text? Near impossible. Was that an accusation or a joke or flirting or–? We read each other when we talk. The topics that make my voice go flat and my eyes hit the floor, the ones that bring me bubbling up with excitement, most people tread around them differently.

Human coding sucks.

We none of us use words to mean the same thing. Not exactly. I have a friend/ex who says “I love you” often and easily. The first time, I almost bolted from his apartment. Those are words I don’t say and don’t like to hear. They’re frightening. What they mean to me is frightening. To him, it’s hardly more than “I feel affection for you, I care about you.” No big deal. Abstract terms are most volatile. “Respect my existing relationship”…okay. Define “respect.” What does it look like, what crosses a line? Even in research, on forms carefully calibrated to minimize confusion, people pause. “What do you mean, anonymous?” “Did we use a condom? Well, kind of, it’s complicated.” On those forms it’s easier to see ambiguity, I think. We look at them expecting to be misinterpreted, judged. We approach them with specific goals to clarify what we mean. Social interaction, especially romantic interaction, we expect to flow more naturally. We feel understood, and that we understand. It’s part of intimacy. But we also make mistakes because of it.

No amount of communication can overcome insecurity or mistrust.

You could be the most articulate, honest, compassionate communicator in the world. If the person you’re talking to doesn’t trust you at least a little bit, it won’t do a damn thing to solve your issues. If everything is run through a filter of paranoia and insecurity, it will be interpreted in a way that seems to justify insecurities and fears. I’m prone to anxiety. I have to set it aside until it seems reasonably proven before acting on it, else I will literally never have a healthy interaction with anyone. One of my relationships just ended in large part because of insecurity and mistrust. She thought I was lying, using her, manipulating. She thinks that her (our) partner choosing to be poly is an aggression, that it means she’s not enough. It’s wrong and it’s hurtful, but there’s nothing for it. No matter what I say or do, it goes through that filter and comes out hurting her.

We don’t want to hurt the people we care about.

Words can hurt. “I don’t like mushrooms” can easily sound like “I don’t like your cooking…or you” to someone who’s just cooked you a mushroom-laden meal. Remember, our coding sucks. When we’re asked a question that’s loaded, we know that a true answer may not convey truth, but saying so will seem to convey avoidance. So many people hear “you’re not good enough” in so many statements that do not actually mean that. It makes people reticent to speak, that fear of being misunderstood.

Something is missing.

No two people prioritize quite the same things. You can’t say everything. You can’t know what details your partner will fixate on, think are important. A few things are norms: whether you have other partners, risk behaviors with them. Not disclosing that is never “oops I didn’t think you’d care.” Others need discussing. Is it cheating to flirt? Do you need to know the person I’m texting is an ex, when I show you a random meme she’s sent me? When do I have to “come out” as bi, poly, kinky? (I hate this, because people should not get angry that assumptions they make are wrong and it happens all the time. People don’t have to stop on or before a first date and say “by the way I’m straight/gay, monogamous, cisgendered, vanilla. Does that bother you?” but if a person is anything else and doesn’t lead with it, they (we) are lying scum. The assumption is kind of unfair, folks.)

…that was a longer than expected tangent. Anyway, some things that should be said won’t be. It’s problematic but often they’re only not said because your partner honest to goodness had no idea they needed to be. Dietary restrictions come into this a lot. Polly Pocket has a pretty limited palate. It took a few meals to realize I couldn’t just say “I’m making vegetable and beef wontons, is that ok?” because it didn’t occur to her that I’d use “weird” vegetables and it didn’t occur to me she’d think they’re weird. Some people are not comfortable being in a house with a gun. Gun owners don’t tend to expect this, and do tend to keep them out of sight unless they have a large collection. And on, mostly minor things we’d never think to mention because they’re part of our daily routines. We don’t communicate because we don’t know we need to.

Communication without action means nothing.

Sometimes communication goes well. You get to the root of an issue, discuss solutions, agree on a course of action, and all is well.

Until two days later the agreement in violated. You forgot. He lied. Whatever. Having that same talk ad nauseum will continually bring you back to a workable (or at least agreeable) solution, but a blueprint for a house you never build is just an unwieldy sheet of paper.

Communication is important. Maybe one of the most important things. “Communicate” is great advice…but saying just that and nothing more is itself an example of poorly communicating a plan. Communicate how? What actually needs to be said, is it what I think it is or something deeper? What are the barriers, how can they be overcome?

Communication is hard. It’s an insult to wave it like a magic wand of relationship repair. It’s a process and it’s work and it’s delightfully, horribly complex. So if you want to tell someone to communicate more and better in relationships, best be able to say what that means.

44 thoughts on “Communicate!”

  1. Such a good post.

    I get unreasonably frustrated when people spout the ‘communicate’ mantra as if it’s some kind of magic wand that someone can swish around to easily fix ALL THE THINGS.

    They don’t seem to understand that
    a) people are complex in all the ways you talk about, and all of those complexities have influence, are real, create barriers, and all need to be navigated with care and
    b) figuring out how to talk about difficult things is really fucking hard because those complexities mean that it’s not just a matter of blurting out some stuff and expecting it to go well.

    Or perhaps they do understand that all too well, but actually *thinking* about real communication is too hard, so the mantra is just easier to throw out there and pretend it’s at all helpful.


    1. Seems like a pretty reasonable frustration to me. At its core, relationships are communication. Two people relating to each other. So yes, of course to have a relationship they need to communicate. Saying “just communicate!” is repeating the problem and pretending it’s a solution. Infuriating.

      I see this in health promotion all the time: “Just eat healthy!” “Just use condoms!” Yes, absolutely, fantastic. Now who’s going to provide nutrition education and access to affordable healthy food? Who’s going to provide condoms and teaching folk about risk and how to advocate for themselves (sex ed is basically useless here)? Solutions address barriers, damnit!

  2. “If everything is run through a filter of paranoia and insecurity, it will be interpreted in a way that seems to justify insecurities and fears. “

    THIS! I have discovered, first hand, that no amount of talking, explaining, or heart rending openness can overcome basic mistrust of motives. Unless there is the common perception that the basic motivations are to be trusted there can be no resolution to communication issues.

    1. Yeah. And there’s no fixing it, because any explanation will be read as manipulation. I can empathize–my anxiety and trust issues are profound–but once you’ve decided to treat a partner as if they’re out to hurt you, relationship is broken. Hurts both parties less to just end it.

      (Which is a big part of why Z and I just did end it. Bleh.)

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