'Better Communication': The Great Myth of Couples Therapy

"What we have here is a failure to communicate." You may remember this famous line from the movie "Cool Hand Luke." And if you've been in couples therapy, you probably remember the line spoken in some form or fashion by your therapist.

The problem is: for most couples, the line is a myth.

Forgive the blasphemy. But the truth is: couples are communicating all the time. They use what I call "hidden messages." Hidden messages are the "between-the-lines" communications that fly back and forth in every relationship. They are often more powerful than messages directly spoken. And to the trained ear, they are most revealing of a relationship.

O.K., you say, then "What we have here is a failure to communicate--directly! We're talking about a semantic difference..."

Nope. There is a delightfully romantic notion (often seen in movies) that if people only spoke their minds and hearts directly, all would be well. I have treated many couples, and I have almost neverfound this to be true. If unhappy couples were able to speak their minds and hearts directly (i.e., made the embedded messages clear), each party would know where the other party stands, but neither would necessarily be happier. Indeed, we learn to communicate indirectly in order to hide the true feelings that might be seen as socially inappropriate or destructive. We are all, more or less, politicians when it comes to relating to people, even those closest to us.

Does this mean that unhappy couples are doomed to be this way forever? Hardly. But the solution is never as quick and easy as "communicating better." What determines success in couples therapy? Here's a brief list:

    1. Each party must learn what it is they are asking for from the other party, and why it is they are asking for it. This can be complicated. Often what is being asked for has very deep familial roots--and is invisible to the person doing the asking. For example: "I asked you to do the dishes, and you didn't do them" may bear the emotional weight of: "You don't listen to me, no one has ever listened to me--I don't know if I have a place in anyone's life." And a slightly sarcastic, "I'm sorry, I forgot" may bear the emotional weight of "These are your wishes, your needs, what about me? Whoever paid attention to me?"


  1. Each party must understand and take responsibility for the embedded (between-the-lines) messages they are sending. People must recognize that they may be saying the "right thing," but sending contradictory messages that better reflect their wishes/needs/feelings. The "I'm sorry," in the dialogue above is a good example of this.
  2. Each party must be willing to share what they discover about themselves (painful personal histories, unfulfilled childhood needs, the ways they protected themselves from unmet needs) and encourage the other party to do likewise.
  3. Each party must continue to think about all of the above, even after therapy ends.

These are the goals of good couples therapy. Once achieved, couples will be talking about things that are real, deep, and important. And they will continue "communicating" for life.

About the author: Dr. Grossman is a clinical psychologist and author of the Voicelessness and Emotional Survival web site.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2009, January 7). 'Better Communication': The Great Myth of Couples Therapy, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 25 from

Last Updated: March 29, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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