“We can’t communicate” is a statement I hear a lot in my counseling practice. It doesn’t take long before I discover it isn’t true. Most of the couples I see communicate quite well. In fact, the whole neighborhood hears them communicating. They communicate in my office; sometimes the communication continues in the parking lot after the session. The communication is loud, clear, and hurtful. Communication is not the problem. What they really mean to say is they don’t like the messages being communicated.

Communication Is Not The Problem

Gary Chapman, PhD. is an expert in marital communication. He literally wrote the book on how to effectively communicate with one’s spouse. The 5 Love Languages, first published in 1992, continues to be a bestseller 26 years later. It is listed as #15 in Amazon’s Top 100 Books, #1 in the Love and Romance category, and #1 in the Marriage and Adult Relationship category. Millions of people have read his books on communication. What most people don’t know is that even Dr. Chapman understands the problem isn’t always about communication. In 2008 he wrote:“I made the assumption that if people knew how to express love effectively, they would be eager to do it. I now realize that assumption was wrong.”

If communication is not the problem, what is?


The problem is an emotional distancing caused by fear and shame. Usually her fear and his shame. Women want to talk: it’s how they feel better. Not talking about the relationship is what makes men feel better. Each is trying to achieve the same goal – to feel better about themselves and the relationship – but neither is giving the other what they need. Not getting what you need from your spouse leads to a sense of disconnection. A disconnected marriage is created by the different ways we experience fear and shame. Her feeling disconnected creates anxiety and fear. In turn, her fear and anxiety makes him feel like a failure which creates a sense of shame.

His reaction to shame is to shut down, not talk about it, and withdraw.

Her reaction to fear is to approach the problem, enlist his support in solving the problem, and talking about the relationship.

It is an endless cycle of approach and withdrawal that spirals down and down. The more he withdraws, the more fearful she becomes. The more fearful she is, the more ashamed he feels because he cannot fix the problem. Her fear feeds his shame. His shame fuels her fear.

Some couples communicate in a way that is loud, clear, and hurtful.

What To Do?

Since women’s fear and men’s shame are mostly unconscious the first step is to be work on yourself. When you learn to recognize your fear and shame, you can stop the downward cycle.

There are only two things you have control over in your marriage: the first is how you choose to respond to fear and shame. The second is control over those things you do that trigger a fear/shame response in your spouse.

It is too easy to find ways for your spouse to change. Instead, take a long look at yourself. This is why it is possible for one person to change their marriage. Dealing with your own sense of fear or shame WILL improve your marriage.

Don’t wait. Don’t blame. Take action now.

(There is a difference between counseling that focuses on you and counseling that focuses on the marriage EVEN IF your spouse refuses to go to marriage counseling. Call BMA Counseling (918.346.3665) to schedule an appointment.)