Let Me Explain What I Mean

03/11/2015 12:32 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015

This is the first in an occasional series on the critical issue of effective communication between the members of a couple, an issue that is too, complex, has too, many dimensions, and is too, important to be dealt with in one post.

Effective communication occurs when the meaning, that is, the facts and feelings, questions and answers, intended to be conveyed by the sender, are the same, or close to the same, as the interpretation and understanding given to them by the receiver. Achieving and maintaining effective communication in a partnership is critical. Ineffective communication and misinterpretation, if left unremedied, leads to conflict and in turn to a deterioration in the range, depth, and frequency of communication. Since communication is the basis by which we maintain our ties with our partner, a decline in efforts at communication will increase physical and emotional distance, and eventually lead to the end of the relationship.

We've all heard of couples whose communication has deteriorated to the point where it consists entirely of hisses and grunts. How sad for people who once loved and wanted to spend the rest of their life with each other. As a divorce lawyer I have seen many cases of marriage failure resulting wholly or in part from mis-communication that is unremedied. We have to acknowledge, effective communication is difficult to achieve and maintain in any context, but particularly in a committed relationship, where it is complicated by the range and depth of feelings expressed and the degree of, communication dependent, interaction and interdependence.

Effective communication is a two step process. In step One, the sender and receiver go through a series of questions and answers following the initial communication. The receiver asks (directly or rhetorically): "This is what I heard. Is that what you meant?" The sender, if necessary, restates or clarifies what he/she meant. This step is repeated over and over until the sender and receiver have the same interpretation of the statement's meaning. This is cumbersome and artificial, which is probably why it is so commonly ignored. On the other hand ignoring this step is the source of much of the difficulty in marriage, particularly when the content is important. In a way its like painting. As any painter will tell you the quality of the product is directly related to the time and effort put into the preparation. This first step is the preparation for effective communication. Its time consuming and much of the time the sender and receiver are on the same page and understand fully. But, on the few occasions when they are not, and don't, the resulting misinterpretation can have serious, painful, and long-lasting consequences.

Step Two is repetition. A very high percentage of what we say is composed of stock phrases and statements. We don't consider the possible meanings of "Good Morning" or "I love you" "See you later." We know what they mean and we use them over and over again. We don't thoughtfully put them together before we send them and we don't carefully analyze their content when we receive them.

A variation of stock phrases is a couples' use of code phrases to convey a set message. These codes can be either positive or negative, "You smell nice" and "You're late." The positive ones encourage communication and attachment, while the negative ones inhibit communication and attachment. Over time, more and more of a couple's communication becomes, in one way or another, repetitive. We get to choose whether those repeated messages are positive or negative.

If you've ever had occasion to see two different productions of the same play, seen two versions of say, Romeo and Juliet, you know that the same words, said with different intonation and emphasis can convey very different meaning. A positive message, for example, said with a sarcastic intonation can mean exactly the opposite; "Nice, job."

To this point I have assumed that the effort at effective communication is conducted with honesty on the part of both parties, but both sender and receiver can purposely deceive the other by saying that what they meant or what they heard are different from what they actually meant or heard. Lying is an indication of other problems which, if uncorrected, build up until the structure of the relationship has no supporting base of truth and trust.

Another serious danger to effective communication, and the most common, is the assumption. The assumption by the sender and/or receiver that the meaning received was the same as that intended. The couple skips the iterative process and mis-communication takes hold.

Regardless of where you are on the path to marriage (see my earlier post, "What Marriage Really Means") I hope you will take the time to explore in depth some piece of communication between you and your partner. Using the tools of iterative clarification and repetition, couples can achieve effective communication and both smooth and speed the path toward "real marriage."