My boyfriend and I just can’t communicate anymore and I don’t know what happened. What can I do?


One of the most frequent issues that couples identify in counselling is ‘communication breakdown’. They will often tell me, “We used to be able to talk about everything, but it is really different now.” Your question reminds me of a client (I will call her Liz) who used to describe the interactions she had with her boyfriend and it became clear that she was unaware of the intensity of her pursuit when she wanted his attention. The words “we need to talk” can strike terror into the hearts of men! That’s not to say that it’s always the female in pursuit of communication; there are more differences among men and among women than between them, but often it’s the woman who is looking for connection. I suggested to Liz that she should look at what she was doing to contribute to the problems in communication; that just as her boyfriend was a challenge for her, she was a challenge for him.


The beginning months of courtship represent the most open relationship in existence. Couples in this stage of dating report talking for hours without inhibition. Anything and everything is on the table. As the relationship develops however, people begin to get careful. They become aware that some subjects are more sensitive than others and they begin to edit. The editing is about protecting the relationship and can be subtle. I told Liz the story of a woman I had worked with who had just started dating. She was meeting her boyfriend at Starbucks and she got to the coffee shop first. As she was ordering her coffee she noticed a box of aids ribbons on the counter and she was just about to put a loonie into the box and take a ribbon when she wondered what the new man would think if she had the ribbon pinned on her jacket. She decided against getting the ribbon and sat down and her boyfriend came in and their day went on. This is what I refer to as an early, subtle erosion of self in an effort to keep the relationship calm. The woman was barely aware that it had happened and her boyfriend or course was totally in the dark. As this sort of filtering continues, the scope of interaction narrows and each person has less and less to communicate.


As the sessions continued, Liz was able to see that her communication style needed attention. Her tone of voice, facial expression and body language were all part of the problem and her determination to ‘resolve an issue’, when both she and her boyfriend were angry, was not useful. His distancing was understandable given the intensity of her pursuit. The well respected couple’s therapist, John Gottman, advises that if your heart rate reaches 90, you should stop the interaction. At that stage of arousal your ‘thinking’ is driven by the reptilian brain: the anxious fight/flight part of you and rational functioning is out of reach.


Liz’s relationship ended before she could implement much of the above. “He flew the coop,” she said one day. But she stuck with the counseling and began to identify the insecurities that drove her immaturity in the relationship: insecurities that she developed long before meeting her boyfriend. Liz didn’t like being single and hoped that our sessions would help with the man in her future. In the end she agreed that for the most part, we are either struggling with the anxiety of being in a relationship, or the anxiety of being out of one.


"Margaret Ann Speak, M.A., C.C.C. works with couples, individuals, and families from a Bowen Family Systems perspective at Family Services of the North Shore. Questions? Write This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 604-988-5281.