Healthy and effective communication is key to happy relationships. I teach interpersonal communication and conflict resolution classes and I know the positive impact communication can have. But what about the relationships that just refuse to improve? That no matter how many communication skills are learned, progress just isn’t made?
Some relationships are so entrenched in destructive patterns, that no manner of communication can fix them. When improved communication does not improve a relationship, I usually look to deeper reasons of toxicity.
When Communication Skills Don’t Work
- There’s a secret– sometimes relationships can not improve because one partner is keeping a secret. These secrets range from hiding an affair, a gambling addiction, a financial crisis, or an entire secret identity. If honesty and trustworthiness is not at the core of a relationship, it is doomed. Communication without full honesty is just lying to someone.
- There’s a lack of empathy– sometimes a partner simply can not or will not feel empathy for the other person. One partner refuses to put him/herself in the other person’s shoes because it makes him/her feel weak or vulnerable. This type of person can learn complex communication skills, but without compassion, the relationship will fail. Communication without empathy is just talking at someone.
- There’s a power imbalance– some relationships adopt a hierarchical structure where one person has more power than the other. This partner uses his/her hierarchical dominance to control the other person. Equal treatment, privileges, or priorities are not given to both partners. Communication without equality is just talking down to someone.
- There’s abuse– abuse comes in a lot of forms. Psychological, religious, financial, physical, sexual, emotional abuse occurs when one partner intimidates, harms, takes advantage of, or manipulates the other for personal gain, control or dominance. Communication without safety is just contempt talk.
What To Do When Communication Doesn’t Work
Abusive behaviors WILL NOT STOP unless you refuse to put up with them anymore. What does REFUSAL TO BE ABUSED look like? Although every relationship is different, here are some options to consider as you make your personal Breaking-Free goals.
- Addressing the abusive behaviors (blame shifting, personal attacks, sabotage, lying, manipulation, critical judgments, name calling, etc.) in a counseling session with a counselor or pastor. Having a third party witness and affirm your needs can be a powerful change agent.
- Require full disclosure and honesty from your partner. If you suspect a secret is being kept from you, it is ok to press for honesty. Some marriage therapists offer lie-detector testing as a tool to establish honesty and re-build trust.
- Address the imbalance of power. It is important for you to empower yourself and to see yourself as an equal. This important self-respect work must occur inside of you first.
- Refusing to stay in a counseling session where the counselor or pastor does not recognize these behaviors as abusive. Combative, manipulative, rage-filled tactics should be identified in session and proclaimed as unacceptable. If your pastor or counselor is unable to do this, give yourself permission to find another.
- Communicating repetitively and clearly that “Hostile and abusive behavior is no longer acceptable to me.” Just saying these words out loud can be empowering to you.
- Consider increased separation (i.e. sleeping in separate bedrooms, separate homes, etc.)
- Talking with an attorney to educate yourself about your rights. It is important to gather information about all your options. You do not have to act on any option, getting information is empowering.
- Calling the police when you feel threatened, or are being harmed. This is an important step to keeping yourself safe and setting a boundary against unwanted abusive behavior.
- Attaining a No Contact Order. Visiting your local police department to find out what this entails and when a No Contact Order should be used, is another step in educating yourself about all your options.
- Filing for Separation or Divorce. I know, I know, most women stuck in these destructive relationships do not want to hear about or consider separation or divorce. They are desperate to make it work. To see him change. To try a new miracle retreat or counselor or relationship book. However, when you get to the “end of all trying,” consider separation or divorce as a gift from God on the pathway to recovery, wholeness and new life.
Most women are afraid that if they start setting these boundaries and taking action, things will get worse, he will get angrier, and an ugly divorce will be inevitable. I get it. Instead of thinking of all the worst case scenarios, take one small step at a time. Let God infuse you with the strength and clarity you need.