As a marital therapist, I’ve watched beautifully-communicated and perfectly organized divorces, and I’ve watched the gutsiest and sloppiest marital healing. Great communication can only take us so far in marriage. The truth is, to take our marriages to the next level, we must be willing to go to the bottom level…
When I settle into my office chair for a first marital therapy session, the script is usually pretty predictable.
Me: “What brings you to therapy now?”
(Brave and Terrified and Angry) Couple: “Communication.”
Most couples—in therapy and out—struggle with communication and believe if they can become first-class communicators, their marriages will finally be satisfying. For decades, researchers held the same assumption, believing improved problem-solving skills would result in more marital happiness. Scientists now know this: good communication does help.
That is, for some reason, only a fraction of couples report more marital happiness as the direct result of improved communication. Even worse, most of those couples become chronically dissatisfied again within a year.
I think dynamic, rebellious marriages begin by shattering a false hope: while communication is important, it is not the foundation of our marital homes.
Marriage as a House
If your marriage were a house, communication would be the front door, important for providing entry to the living quarters—those areas of life we spend most of our time inhabiting and discussing such as finances and jobs and parenting and leisure interests. But communication is ultimately not the key to the structural integrity of the marital “home.”
Because every home has a foundation beneath the living quarters.
In the suburbs of Chicago, for reasons of geological necessity, most homes have a basement. And they are a huge headache. They flood easily and can become a haven for mold and allergens. So, many homeowners in Chicago will leave their basements untouched and forgotten—full of old junk and lots of cobwebs.
I think our marriages work the same way.
Our marriages all have another door: the door to the cellar. And if you press your ear to it, you’ll hear activity down there. It’s the restless stirring of two trapped and hurting children.
The Basement of Our Marriages
When we stand at the wedding altar, we are not simply one adult being wedded to another. We are also two children seeking, finally, an adult who will meet our need for connection and belonging.
I suppose that might sound like a bunch of Freudian baloney. But after practicing marital therapy for more than a decade, I am certain that until we enter into this truth of our interior lives, the foundation of our marriages will be cracked and rotting and no amount of good communication will be able to repair them.
As partners, we must descend into the basement of our histories—into our stories riddled with disappointment and inattentiveness and loneliness and shame and rejection—before we can fully understand why we are fighting and what we are fighting for.
Because our fights in the living room are almost always about what’s going on in the basement:
She’s fighting about finances, but really she is voicing a desperate plea for someone who will finally see her and treat her as someone entitled to the dignity of shared influence and control.
Or he is demanding more expressions of gratitude for his career sacrifices, but really he is running away from a childhood in which he was never good enough, and he wants someone to look him in the eye and finally say, “You can rest now, you are completely sufficient and acceptable to us.”
Or she is fighting about another Christmas morning spent at his parents’ house, but really she is asking for the most important person in her life to make her the most important person in his life, because she never felt that way as a kid, when mom and dad made their marital conflict the first priority in her childhood home.
And the list goes on and on. We try to use our communication skills to neatly solve the often-discussed problems of marriage such as how to spend our time and our money. Meanwhile, we are children seeking the satisfaction of much more primitive needs. So, we reach compromises about in-laws and money, but we remain deeply hurt and lonely and we wonder why.
We need to enter into the cellars of our marital homes together, freeing the voiceless children we find there.
Opening the Cellar Door
Unlike the front door of our marital homes, the door to the cellar is not good communication.
The door to the cellar is feeling.
Feeling the fullness of our disappointments and regrets. This kind of feeling is often not neat and orderly. It comes out all sputtering and choking and wet-cheeked. It’s excavated in fits and starts. It doesn’t take turns or engage in reflective listening. It comes out like childbirth—it’s a mess and it happens by any means necessary.
Often, a marriage is stagnant and dying because the communication is perfect, yet neither spouse is willing to feel their pain together.
We must stop talking to one another, and we must begin feeling with each other.
If we can do this together—if we can feel it together, and free the children in the cellar, and grieve our stories as one—our marriages will finally give birth to the kind of connection and the sense of belonging for which we are so deeply longing. We will discover that a picture may be worth a thousand words, but a wet cheek is worth a million. We will become lifelong partners who can communicate clearly and feel deeply—the dynamic duo of marital strength.
And, really, that’s the forgotten and unspoken secret of marriage and life, isn’t it? Weakness becomes strength, darkness reveals the light, grief gives way to peace, shame is transformed into worthiness, sorrow is made into joy, and messiness is glorious.
May 2013 be the year you join hands with your partner, descend into the darkness of your marital cellars, and surprisingly, joyfully, find there the light of grace and the glow of authentic connection.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.