When your relationship with your partner turns sour and you’re not quite sure what to do, what is the “right” next step?
You may have already tried to talk amongst yourselves, only to realize you’re still getting caught in the same argument “loop.” Maybe you then reach out to family and friends, but their advice is far from objective. Finally, you both agree that it’s best to go to couples counseling.
That brings us to a good news, bad news scenario. The good news? Whenever a couple finds that their relationship is not going quite as they planned, and they’ve been unable to work out the issues on their own, seeing a neutral, third-party professional is always a great next step.
The bad news? It may not work. Not because the couple is doomed beyond repair. It’s because traditional couples counseling relies almost solely on verbal communication, and even with the best counselor, it may be ineffective for the most compatible couple. The problem with that approach is that words and advice may not reach the issues embedded within us that often sabotage a healthy relationship. This is especially true for a couple in which at least one person has experienced some form of trauma in their lives.
Does this mean that you’ve completely wasted your time, energy, and money? Not necessarily. For some couples, traditional talk therapy can and does work wonders. Even if it doesn’t repair their relationship, it can provide each partner with valuable insights that they can carry through to a future relationship – or even improve each partner’s life aside from the relationship.
Still, for many other couples, words may not be the most effective way to communicate feelings, resolve deep-seated issues, and break cycles of unhealthy patterns within the relationship. The truth is, verbal communication can come up short in a variety of ways that you may have never imagined – and that even the best couples counselors rarely tell you.
Talking has significant value, but because of the way our brains work, it’s likely to take you only part of the way towards the healthy connection you and your partner are desperate to achieve.
Here are some of the reasons that traditional talk therapy may come up short when it comes to repairing a shaky relationship.
1. Communication: More Doesn’t Mean Better
Most would agree that communication plays a crucial role in building healthy relationships, and counselors may advocate the need to vocalize our needs and thoughts to our partners. However, communicating what our mind tells us may not yield the results that we desire. Have you ever been in a situation in which you freely shared the thoughts that came to your mind – feeling like “honesty is the best policy” – but it backfired? Upon vocalizing your thoughts, did you still feel empty? Despite your open and direct approach, did your needs remain unmet? Or worse, as Jack Nicholson famously quoted in the movie, “A Few Good Men,” your partner simply “couldn’t handle the truth?”
Some therapists may caution that you haven’t talked deeply enough about your emotions and needs, and that once you do, it’ll be uncomfortable for a while. They may tell you to stay with it, to talk more often, and you and your partner may become more accustomed to it. It’s certainly possible; but it’s just as possible that if talking isn’t working, simply talking more is not a viable solution.
The lesson? Communicating more doesn’t mean you are communicating better.
2. Your Body Says More Than Your Words
The most common advice provided in couples counseling is to improve the way we communicate with our partner, with a focus on our verbal communication. For example, many counselors may advise us to communicate our needs to our partner by using more positive words and avoiding demanding phrases. Instead of asking, “Why haven’t you taken out the trash?,” we can say, “It would be great if you can help to empty the trash after you’ve taken a rest.” While changing our words may work in some scenarios, this may not prove to be the most crucial element in building a healthy relationship.
As the saying goes, “It’s not what we say but how we say it.” Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a prominent behavioral psychologist, extensively researched the topic of body language, which resulted in the 7-38-55 rule – only 7% of all communication is done through verbal communication, whereas the nonverbal component of our daily communication, such as the tonality of our voice and body language, make up 38% and 55% respectively. However, few of us really know how to explore and improve our non-verbal expression in a way that’s impactful enough to create long-term change.
We may believe we are being kind when we phrase our sentences with the kindest words, but our bodies may also be tense, closed off, and threatening. This often happens subconsciously, leaving partners confused about what else they could possibly change to make the relationship better. Can you recall an incident when someone apologized for upsetting you, but you just didn’t find it comforting or convincing? Many times, this is because something else is being communicated beyond the spoken words. Changing our words does not necessarily create the impact we need to have a peaceful, intimate, and enjoyable relationship.
3. A Change in Tone Doesn’t Change Our Tune
Similar to #2, friends and counselors often advise us to go a step further by improving our tone when we speak. It may work – at least initially. However, the results may be short-lived because changing our tone does not change our state of being, including the deeper emotions we store inside our bodies. Our physical state speaks louder than our voice. Speaking calmly doesn’t help if our bodies still communicate in an aggressive manner because of unhealthy, subconscious beliefs or patterns trapped in our physical frames. Imagine grating a bitter gourd instead of pulverizing it with a juice maker. Either way, the result is something bitter. Changing the external would not change what’s deep inside us.
4. Talk Doesn’t Access Trauma
Through the years, we have accumulated painful experiences and unhealthy subconscious beliefs. Just as our mind remembers what we did, our body keeps score of the negative experiences we’ve been through. We may not realize it, but these subtle, subconscious patterns shape how we respond to and communicate with our partner.
The trapped memories from our trauma affect the way we make decisions and how we respond to others; they form a heavy, invisible web that entangles our past, current, and even future relationships. This is because trauma creates dysfunction in the brain, especially in the Amygdala, Hippocampus, and Prefrontal Cortex. The result? It’s hard to regulate fear responses and distinguish past memories from present reality, even in a healthy, loving relationship.
There are multiple signs that our bodies may be trapping unresolved trauma memories and unhealthy patterns. We may experience chronic pain, frequent anxiety, or an inability to focus. Our bodies are always finding ways to release the energy that we constantly use to keep old memories repressed or “swept under the rug.” At times, this may result in outbursts of anger or other unhealthy behaviors that typically jeopardize a healthy relationship. These impulsive reactions are also known as fight, flight, or freeze responses, which indicates that the nervous system is still operating as if the trauma from the distant past is still an active threat today.
Unless we resolve the underlying trauma that is causing these self-sabotaging patterns, we may be going in circles in trying to build a loving and healthy relationship. The answer? We need to go further beyond talking in order to release the trapped trauma. This is the trauma that may be preventing you from enjoying the satisfying relationship you’ve always dreamed about.
Talk Less. Move More.
Everyone is capable of enjoying a healthy, thriving relationship, even if they’ve experienced trauma. You don’t have to be envious and wonder why you can never have what others have. You deserve to enjoy the same fulfilling relationships that other people experience. But since talk therapy isn’t always effective in curing what ails a failing relationship – especially one in which some form of trauma has been involved – where should a couple turn for help?
Dance/Movement Therapy (DMT) can access and release the trapped trauma that has been impacting the lives of you and your partner. Working with a Board-Certified Therapist can yield results you may not have imagined otherwise. And there’s a simple reason why. Trauma can’t always be accessed and resolved through verbal means. This is because the left hemisphere of our brain – the part that governs language and logic and has the ability to understand the “sum” of any situation – tends to be the less dominant hemisphere when trauma occurs.
The left hemisphere may even “shut down” during or after a traumatic event, which explains why talk therapy is often limited in helping people resolve their trauma. Dance, movement, or other creative means that rely more on the right hemisphere may be better suited to finally reach a breakthrough in trauma healing.
By all means, don’t stop talking to your partner, either in therapy or just in normal, everyday conversation. Keeping the lines of communication open and flowing is a critical element in any therapeutic method.
But remember, words can only do so much. Though it may only be your mouth that’s moving, your body is talking, too. Alternative approaches such as DMT give trauma, and the unhealthy patterns it creates, a path to long-lasting and healthier change. Which can help your body say much nicer things to your partner.
Orit Krug, Founder / Chief Executive Officer
Orit Krug is the CEO of Orit Krug, Inc. She is an award-winning Board-Certified Dance/Movement Therapist and Licensed Creative Arts Therapist (NY) who holds a Master of Science in Dance/Movement Therapy.
The company specializes in helping high-achieving individuals and couples excel in their love lives without self-sabotage. Her approach to Dance/Movement Therapy includes the use of neuroscience. This knowledge of how the brain works makes her programs far more effective than other practices.