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Photo: Chris Bartlett
Of all the advice that has drifted from psychotherapists' offices into couples' daily lives, the most overworked—and, I suspect, the most destructive—is the injunction to communicate. Be open, be honest, speak your mind, demand to be heard...well, yes, sometimes, maybe—if simple misunderstandings are at the root of your frustrations.

But how often, really, does one partner have no notion what's on the other's mind? When I evaluate a couple, it's not at all unusual for them to cite "communication" as a problem: "He'll say anything—he has no notion how he undermines me."

Rarely is the impasse caused by lack of information. Think how hard it is to keep a secret in an intimate relationship. But it is common for thoughtless speech to stir up discord. There may even be instances where silence is, as advertised, golden.

I am thinking of a story a husband told me in praise of his wife. He had come home on a Friday griping about his job. The managers were ratcheting up the pressure, and now an immediate supervisor was hinting that a promised promotion might not come through. His wife looked annoyed, but instead of speaking her mind, she puttered and listened and offered vague encouragement. On Saturday, she said, "About that supervisor—" And the husband interrupted: "I know. I'm going to have to confront him or go over his head."

"She could have laid it out for me the night before," the man told me. "She may have been thinking that I'm timid and insecure. Other women have said as much. But she was patient. She let me vent, let me spend a night mulling it over."

I asked him what his wife's silence meant. He said, "She has faith in me. She knows I'll do the right thing."

I like this story because it indicates where communication lies.

Communication is not just putting ideas into words. It's getting ideas across, preferably in a way that allows them to be used. Timing is crucial.

But what of spontaneity? Many people believe intimacy means being able to say what you think: "I'm through repressing my feelings. What good is a relationship if I can't express myself?"

I see the point in this objection. Women have been forced for too long to control their responses. We may admire Jane Austen's shrewd heroines, but we wouldn't want to live in a world that demands such extremes of social calculation. No one should have to weigh every syllable.

All the same, self-expression often benefits from forethought. That's why writers revise. Sometimes I think therapists have done great harm by overemphasizing immediacy in communication, as if the ideal marriage were like psychoanalysis from the patient's position, where you say whatever comes to mind without censorship.

Keep reading: "The point of communication in marriage is not for one party to look clever or to humiliate the other"

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