Communication Problems Create Bigger Problems
What We Say (And Don’t Say) Matters
If you wonder how big of a deal good communication is, there was a time when a problem in communication almost killed my husband. Well, actually, it was I who almost killed him. And not really “almost killed,” but “almost didn’t save.”
The reason communication is so important to a relationship is because it determines whether it stays healthy and grows. If I don’t know what you’re thinking, I won’t react appropriately. And vice versa. The way we teach each other who we are, what we want, what we care about, what we need, and how we feel, is directly related to what we get in the relationship. If we can’t do this well, things start to unravel.
It Started Out So Well
Which leads me to my story. Bill and I learned everything we ever needed to know about marriage by going on a canoe trip. It’s like that book about learning everything in kindergarten, except condensed into several hours and a very small space. If you’ve ever canoed for the first time, you probably know it is not always as easy as it looks. It takes figuring out how and where and when to paddle, and how to balance yourself. Add a second person, and we now have to know how to communicate! Because if we aren’t coordinating what we’re doing, things might not go well.
This is a good metaphor for navigating life with another person. Because if we don’t coordinate, we might be working at cross purposes. One saves, the other spends. One cleans, the other messes up. One tells the child “No you can’t” while the other says “Go ahead.”
Good communication helps us get to our goals. But poor communication can really hurt a relationship. It reminds me of a couple I know who differed on what temperature they wanted a room to be. When either one left the room, the other would either crank up the heat or turn it way down. This guaranteed someone was always uncomfortable, and it ensured they were both unable to trust the other person.
Bad communication in a canoe might look a lot like what we were doing: alternately bonking into one bank or the other, spinning around, wobbling, and eventually tipping over in some rocky, scary rapids. But we’re not even to the bad part yet.
It Gets Worse
Lack of good communication meant that even though we totally agreed on the goal of heading straight down the river, we never coordinated our efforts enough to learn how. We each gave it our all. We were trying so hard, yet we didn’t really listen to each other. We both thought we were right. When that happens, nobody wins. That water was cold, and somewhere in the Current River in Missouri, lies a 20 year old cooler full of food and beer, along with the remnants of my favorite sweatshirt.
But back to the bad part. It gets way worse. Because of poor communication on my part, it almost turned deadly.
A Split Second Decision
After we capsized, we were holding onto some branches. We were trying to figure out what to do because the current was very fast in this spot and there were lots of big, scary rocks. We thought we were gonna die. (I’ll tell you later about the relaxed people on the opposite bank, watching with amusement as this all unfolded.)
Just after we tipped, my husband yelled, “Catch the boat!” Unfortunately, I assumed he was worrying more about the canoe than about our safety. Just reading this I am horrified. I screamed, dramatically, “Forget the boat! Save yourself!” Just then, as my wise words are escaping my mouth, I see the heavy metal canoe whoosh way too fast and hard about one inch from his face. That’s when I realized why he had asked me to catch it. I hate to even think about what would have happened if it whacked him in the head. Fortunately, I don’t have to.
The whole thing was extremely humbling, and it taught me a very important lesson about communication. Namely this: I don’t know everything. My assumptions can be wrong. Trusting someone else can be a really, really great idea. Especially when there is no time for clarification. I guess it boils down to giving the other person the “benefit of the doubt.”
How often do couples stop giving each other the benefit of the doubt? When our first thought upon hearing something is not only wrong, but unflattering to the other person?
We Lived To Tell The Tale
All’s well that ends well. The people I mentioned, the campers on the other bank who got front row seats to this amateur show, figured it out for us. They yelled for us to let go of the branches and float a short distance to some shallow water that we somehow couldn’t see from where we were. It took a minute, but we both decided to trust them and in very short time were standing up in probably knee-deep water, feeling really dumb.
Despite the drama, some very good things came out of that trip. We never forgot the lessons we learned (and are still learning) about communication. We regularly use the phrase “rowing in the same direction” when we are coordinating our efforts. We also learned that we didn’t like canoeing, but prefer instead to float on a raft, or even sit together by the campfire and read about people doing active things.
Maybe some day we’ll try it again. Thanks to that trip, we are good at communicating well when putting up Christmas trees, putting up tents, and raising children (the ultimate coordinated effort!).
Margie Wheelhouse is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Springfield, Illinois. She helps couples build great relationships and repair broken ones. She and her husband may try canoeing again one day, once they’ve nailed the tasks of joint projects like putting up a Christmas tree, assembling a tent, and raising their children.