In one of my graduate school classes, we were shown a video of a real couple in their first session of marriage counseling. The intent of the video was to help us recognize the benefits of a certain model of behavioral therapy, but it had the opposite affect on me.
The wife seemed sad as she talked about the disconnection she felt from her husband and about the frequency of their arguments. The counselor started teaching them how to use good communication skills (use "I" not "you", avoid accusations, talk about how you feel, be a good listener, summarize each other's point of view, etc.). Their follow-up sessions continued in much the same manner as they trained to become experts in wielding their new tools.
The video then skipped to several months later. What we were suppose to learn from the video was how well the couple had improved their communication. But what struck me was how sad the wife still looked and how she used her tools to express the same loneliness she'd felt months earlier. Their problem was a lack of connection; poor communication was the symptom, not the cause.
So why do we think that we can fix a relationship by learning how to use good communication tools? A couple might become tool experts but it won't matter if they're building on a faulty foundation or working from two different blueprints. Frankly, two lousy communicators who both long for connection with each other will have a better relationship than two communication experts with different agendas.
Couples in conflict need to learn how to nurture their desire for connection. They each need to gain insight into the emotional currents that keep pulling them apart. They need to recognize their patterns of moving against or away from each other and, instead, learn how to move toward each other lovingly and honestly, even when it feels risky.
This is where behavioral therapy falls short. You can teach somebody to do all the right things, but they can do them for the wrong reasons. You can teach great communication techniques, but they will have little lasting value if their motives are still working against intimacy. On the other hand, if a couple learns to recognize and adjust some of their motivational issues, then working on healthy communication will be a natural outcome.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not apposed to communication tools. Good tools help build good things. But we need to be clearer regarding the "thing" we're building when it comes to relationships. Then we can start to build.
Let me give you a few relationship building tips. I'll call these three steps instead of three tools since they follow a natural progression, the first being most important. (It starts with an attitude, not a behavior.)
When communication goes bad (notice I said when, not if), it's important for you to consider where you missed a step. If you failed to seek connection, or start cool, or stay curious...ADMIT IT. Ask for forgiveness and talk about what you want to differently next time around.
Put first things first. Tools are great, but before you start using them make sure you both know what you're creating: connection, not just conversation.