Three keys to communication


A vein throbs in Jack’s forehead.

Jill is pale and near tears.

We are discussing Tupperware.

“I hate how it always falls out on the floor whenever I open the cabinet,” Jack says.

“That’s what Tupperware does,” Jill replies

Jack scowls. 

Jill tenses. 

We’re off to the races. 

I, a trained mental health professional, can tell that there’s more going on here than meets the eye.  Though a trained beagle would probably sense the same thing.   

I start asking questions. 

Thirty minutes later I’ve learned  that Jack coped with growing up in the chaos of his dysfunctional family by becoming a neat freak who now regularly imposes his need for physical order on the people around him. 

And I’ve heard Jill describe how her mom used to prowl  through her personal belongings, and how nowadays the only room in Jill’s life which feels remotely like hers is the kitchen.  

Given those histories, a Tupperware war was inevitable.


Axiomatic among therapists is the idea that most relationship problems boil down to problems with communication.

Fair enough.  But the next question is “Where do communication problems come from?” 

And the next after that is “Why do they keep recurring?”  

Here’s how I see it:

Communication tends to break down whenever partners either haven’t learned or have forgotten three key principles.  The first is

(1) There’s no such thing as a grownup human being.

This is the secret truth behind the vast majority of emotional problems.  Human beings grow faster physically than psychologically, so regardless of how big or old or emotionally healthy we are there’s always part of us that retains the feelings, perceptions and vulnerabilities of the child we once were.  That part — the famous Inner Child you’ve probably heard about — is usually what gets triggered by criticism, rejection or conflict. 

And when you and I keep having the same fight over and over, it’s a fair bet that the fight is really between your Child and mine.

Which leads to the second principle:

(2) All feelings are legitimate.

This actually means two things: that all feelings make sense, and that all feelings are worthy of respect. 

Jack’s hatred of unruly Tupperware makes sense in light of how he’s come to associate external control with internal safety.  And Jill’s anxiety at Jack’s “invasion” of her kitchen and criticism of her housekeeping makes sense in light of how it reminds her of her mom’s disregard for personal boundaries. 

Neither can help feeling what they’re feeling.  Their only real choice is between feeling them secretly or out loud.  

Which brings us to the third principle:

(3) Every conversation occurs on two levels.

Level 1 is the level of What We Talk About. 

Level 2 is the level of How We Feel When We Talk About It.

Communication tends to break down when couples are unable to leave Level 1 and drop down to Level 2.

Jack and Jill will keep fighting about Tupperware because the fight isn’t about Tupperware at all.  Tupperware’s just the trigger.  The real issues are Jack’s need for a sense of order and safety, and Jill’s need for boundaries and respect.

More than any other, this principle explains both why communication problems tend to recur and why couples repeat the same fight over and over.  

When feelings are involved, Level 1 talk won’t resolve much, because Level 1 talk doesn’t address feelings.  So we’re talking about the wrong thing. 

And trying to resolve conflict by talking about the wrong thing is like mowing the tops off dandelions.  Expect a new crop tomorrow.


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