A critical element of therapy is communication. Freud called what he did the “talking cure,” and today what therapists do is often still described as “talk therapy.” Many books and skills building classes seek to improve our ability to communicate, and in a snippet of some prison drama I surfed past recently, I saw the hook-handed gang boss telling his peer to “Use your words.” What is so important about communication?
Most of us have had the experience of feeling better after having a difficult conversation. Perhaps we reached some resolution, perhaps not; maybe we didn’t get to say everything or it didn’t come out right, but we still felt better afterward. What was unsaid kept us up three nights in a row, and having said it we slept very well. I assert that what has happened is what Daniel Siegel calls “feeling felt.”
To understand this better, I propose that at the other end of the spectrum of successful communication is the existential concept of isolation. Isolation is the idea that we are alone; we come into the world and go out in solitary, and in some way will always be alone. It is also the shadow that is lifted when communication happens well. When we communicate, we reveal ourselves; we offer to the other the ability to connect with us more fully and deeply. Isolated little lights alone move toward each other haltingly, sometimes timidly, or boldly; communication is the action that reduces our isolation, the interface that opens us to relationship with others.
In a couple, these factors are intensified, which is why improving communication is often a component of successful couples therapy. And the other person is critical to successful communication. How long would any of us stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and shout out our thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams, knowing that no one was listening? Past the novelty of hearing an echo, it would become pointless fairly quickly. When we communicate successfully, we reduce our isolation; on the other hand, when we aren’t communicating or our communication is misunderstood, we can feel very alone. Three Dog Night captured the idea well in their line: “Two can be as bad as one/ It’s the loneliest number since the number one.”
Common complaints in couples counseling are: “He never talks to me,” “She talks too much,” “I don’t know what he’s thinking,” “She doesn’t say what she means.” They appear to be about communication, and are often about feeling isolated. So take heart! The next time you feel you aren’t communicating effectively, pause and put it into terms that will get you feeling felt. Like this: “I’m not nagging, I’m just trying to reduce my existential isolation by communicating my desire to have the trash taken out, thereby increasing my feelings of connection to you.”