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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"

It is worth noting that psychotherapy from the therapist's standpoint is very much a matter of timing. Trainees often lie in wait for moments when emotions run high, hoping to express an insight when it will have the most impact. This strategy works for some patients but leaves others feeling ambushed. The point of therapy—or of fruitful communication in marriage—is not for one party to look clever or to humiliate the other. Many years ago, a psychoanalyst I admire, Fred Pine, of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, wrote an essay titled "The Interpretive Moment" about communication techniques that leave the other person feeling respected. I like to remind overeager trainees of an adage from that paper: Strike while the iron is cold.

There are moments when speech is likely to damage intimacy. The heart-to-heart that seems so appealing when you've had too much to drink won't do anybody any good. Nor is it a useful strategy to mention one more annoyance as the two of you are headed to bed.

Sometimes bad moments declare themselves in the middle of a discussion. If you find yourself making the same point five times, maybe the problem is not that you've failed to make your opinion clear. He knows what you've said. He disagrees, or emotionally he can't afford to agree right now. Perhaps your insistence carries a secondary message, that you find him disappointing in an important way, and you may need to think through the larger problem separately, and perhaps on your own.

Psychotherapists pay attention to what they call the working alliance. You can't bring up hurtful issues, can't hope to change things for the better, if you're not on the same team. Early in a relationship, all that counts is creating trust and comfort. Solving problems through explicit negotiation makes sense only if the effort serves the prior goal of relationship building. Nonverbal communication might serve the purpose best: working side by side, sharing pleasures, touching, being there.

Particularly in times of stress, you need to have faith that the two of you can tolerate a little unclarity and muddle through, and not just with the small issues. The big, ongoing struggles—about time, money, and the expression of affection—may need to be postponed.

In hard times, it's worth considering a role for simple curiosity. What exactly is he trying to say? People like to be understood with precision, especially if they are hurting. It is said that rather than listen, men suggest solutions, but women can do that, too. The motive may be less to fix the problem at hand than to reform the other person, or to insult him: "Stop whining about your boss! Be a man!"

Even constructive suggestions can come across as undermining. What many people need is a response that suggests they are capable of finding their own solutions. Or—if they're asking for advice—an acknowledgment that the dilemma is as complex as they feel it to be: "That is complicated. I'll want to think it over."

Couples may actually be energized by letting an issue remain unsettled for a while. The ability to tolerate ambiguity implies confidence in the relationship as a whole. It may be enough to say, "You're right, that's a problem, and sooner or later we'll need to address it." To be sure, this approach works best if you actually intend to sit down on a quiet afternoon and put in your two cents.

None of this is to say that couples can't be spontaneous or that they must suppress annoyance. One of the great problems of self-help prescriptions is that they equate shaky couples with all couples. If the two of you are resilient, smart-mouthed street fighters, you may amuse each other by saying whatever comes to mind. You may even both learn something from what pops out of your mouth. But if your relationship is strained, or if it is just young and untested, you might consider paying attention to the timing of squabbles and, if you need to strike, waiting until the iron is cold.

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