Healthy Mind

Communication breakdown

Written by Akers Editorial

Why talking with your spouse may seem like an insurmountable task. 

Story: Dr. Christine B.L. Adams


Communication in general is difficult for most people. Miscommunication is the norm. Poor communication between spouses can be frustrating because of the daily closeness of marriage. Let’s explore why. 

Spouses project onto each other.

When one spouse substitutes his thoughts or feelings for those of his spouse, he or she is projecting. The result is one spouse assumes what the other one thinks, wants or needs without getting input from the spouse. When spouses do this with each other, they base their reality on flimsy ground, purely as speculation. You can see the chaos that develops from miscommunicating by use of projections. Here is an example:

John knew his wife, Maria, had a difficult week at work. As a surprise, he decided to take her out to dinner. He booked a table at a fancy restaurant and told Maria to get dressed up because he was taking her out for a night on the town. Maria grew upset, yelling at John that this was not something she wanted. Angrily, John replied he was just trying to do something nice for her. Maria said she would like for John to fix dinner at home and then watch a movie together.

John projected onto Maria what he thought was an enjoyable evening. He failed to talk with Maria beforehand and get her input as to what sort of evening she would enjoy. If he had received her input and not projected his ideas onto her, he and she would have communicated better.

When two spouses decrease their emotional responding and projections onto each other and introduce clear thinking and observations into their relationship, they vastly improve their ability to communicate.

Our emotional learning or conditioning gets in the way of clear thinking.

We learn many things from our parents as they raise us. We learn to tie shoelaces, make our bed, ride a bike, read, solve math problems and so on. But we also learn how to feel and behave in relationships with others. The emotions and behaviors acquired will affect decisions about how we communicate with people who are close to us. The result is we develop emotionally attuned ways of dealing with people. These patterns stick with us throughout life. Emotional learning always wins over clear thinking when a spouse is involved. Poor communication results. 

We don’t observe closely what happens between our spouse and ourself.

Since we are taught as young children the emotional ways of responding to others, we don’t see our spouses as they really are in a specific circumstance. Nor do we evaluate what is called for in that circumstance. Here is an example of spouses whose emotions get in the way of clear thinking, and who are unable to observe accurately what happens between them when they try to communicate.

Carl is out of town for a week on a business trip. Every evening at 8, he phones his wife, Sheila. He has done this for five nights in a row. On the sixth night, he is busy in a dinner meeting and texts Sheila that he cannot call her at 8. He calls at 10, after the meeting. Sheila flies into a rage, yelling at Carl about how unreliable he is and what a miserable husband he is to her. Sheila is not able to communicate with Carl in a reasonable way nor does she comprehend her own rage. Carl has no idea why she is so upset or how to communicate with her. He ends the call feeling bewildered, upset with himself and dejected.

In childhood, Sheila learned to be emotionally upset with people in her family who did not respond to her exactly as she wanted. As a child, Carl learned to be upset and disgusted with himself whenever he could not satisfy family members. Both Sheila and Carl used the same ways of emotionally responding to others that they learned in childhood. They failed to communicate because they could not think and observe clearly about their current situation and what was called for.


About the writer Dr. Christine B.L. Adams has been a child and adult psychiatrist for 40 years. She is the co-author with Dr. Homer B. Martin of the book, “Living On Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships.” 

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Akers Editorial

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