After 20 years as a therapist and hearing many, many stories of love and loss, it became obvious to me that some people had managed to choose a pretty compatible life partner while others were in a relationship that was doomed from the start. I could see there were a few specific ways in which people were compatible or not. Eight clear factors emerged that had the most effect on getting along with your partner - eight compatibility factors that, when they matched, reduced the typical friction that life inevitably causes. And one of them is communication compatibility.
Chapter five covers communication compatibility. It's important because, as Willie (32) says...
“OF COURSE if one party is reserved in their feelings, then communication will suffer. It ruined my marriage because my wife always kept her thoughts suppressed or she didn’t know how she felt, but could tell me how I was feeling (usually, she was wrong). Or this - for years she had no idea what she wanted. She could not tell me what made her happy, or she became defensive. We played this game for five long unhappy, uncommunicative years. Until one day she blurted out: we’ve been separated for too long, we’re different people, this marriage is over, I want a divorce. No effort to improve but all hail for a break up.”
This highlights the first part of communication compatibility: whether someone believes talking to each other important or not. Surprisingly, some people don't understand that speaking to each other is important. This is because they have not accomplished an important developmental milestone in childhood...it's called "theory of mind". Around about 5 years old, most children start to understand that other people do not see the world the way they do. Psychologists have a clever test for this...
A child is shown a chocolate box and, when they open it, the box contains pencils rather than the chocolates you might expect. The child is then asked, "when your friend comes in and sees the box, what will they expect to see in the box?" If the child answers, "pencils", the child is assuming their friend shares the same knowledge they do, the same mind, if you like. The child has not yet realised that other people do not possess the same information they do. But, if the child answers, "chocolates", the child understands that their friend will assume a chocolate box contains chocolates and cannot know it contains pencils, even though they themself know it contains pencils. The child now has a "theory of mind" - that other people have their own mind, and are not just an extension of them.
This is a critical stage of development for a person to appreciate that other people have other perspectives on the world and therefore, critically, it is necessary to communicate in order to create a shared perspective - it cannot be assumed. Compatible couples both have a theory of mind and a motivation to communicate or, both have no theory of mind and no motivation to communicate. Incompatible couples have one person who has a theory of mind and is motivated to communicate and one person without theory of mind who is not motivated to communicate - the type of person who says, "you should know what I'm thinking."
A second important aspect of communication is whether people think first or talk first. Some people naturally using talking as a way of thinking - they talk-through ideas before coming to a conclusion - they're chatty and enjoy sharing their thoughts, feelings and experience of the day. On the other hand, some people like to think to themselves before talking; they spend time in silence, thinking through their opinion and only speak once they have a clear perspective to offer. You either "talk-to-think" or "think-to-talk".
Of course, two "talk-to-think" types will love chatting away till the cows come home and understand that talking is a process of exploring the world together. They are compatible. Two "think-to-talk" types will respect the silence and understand that it's only necessary to speak once you have something decisive to say. They are compatible. Incompatibility arises when these two types mix and become frustrated with each other.
If you're curious to understand this difference in more detail, please read chapter five in the book where there are client case studies showcasing the importance of this factor for helping couples stay together. Let me know what you think about this type of compatibility in your relationships.
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