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S2 EP164 – What to do When You Can’t Communicate

Episode Summary

Do you know a healthy way of behaving when you are stuck and unable to communicate with someone? Is a lack of communication one of the complaints you have in your relationship? Many couples claim that their problems stem from a lack of communication. Discover which forms of communication work and lead to conflict resolution.


Hi everyone! Dr. Margaret Paul here with the Inner Bonding podcast. Today I want to about a major topic in relationships, which is communication, and what you can do when you are having a hard time communicating with your partner, or a family member, or a friend.

When I work with couples, one or both often say in their first session, “We can’t communicate.”

If you have said this, what do you really mean? What do you mean by “communicate.”

All too often, when a partner states, “We can’t communicate,” what he or she means is “I can’t get my partner to listen to me and understand things from my point of view.” And underneath this is, “If my partner only understood things through my eyes, he or she would then change and do things my way.”

So what partners often mean when they say, “We can’t communicate,” is “I want to control my partner and he or she won’t listen.”

So when partners are having problems and they say that the problem is communication, what are they trying to communicate?

There are various reasons for communicating:

  1. Sometimes we communicate to offer information about ourselves, such as, “I’m going out for a walk,” or “The dinner reservations are for 7:00.”
  2. Sometimes we communicate to ask for help with tasks, such as, “I need to move the couch to clean under it and I can’t lift it. Would you help me?”
  3. Sometimes we communicate to learn something about the other person, such as “Please help me to understand why you are feeling upset with me. I love you and I really want to understand.”
  4. Sometimes we communicate to ask for help regarding ourselves, such as, “I’m feeling very anxious, and I don’t know why. Would you talk with me for a while? Maybe if I talk about it, I’ll get some clarity.” 

Most of the time, these forms of communication do not cause problems, unless there is an ulterior motive.

An ulterior motive occurs when the intention of the communication is to have some control over the other person. When the intent of the above communications is to offer information, ask for help, or to learn, then there will likely not be any problems. But these same communications can be spoken with an intent to control. The intent to control will be communicated through a harsh or judgmental tone of voice and through a hard, closed energy.

For example, “I’m going for a walk!” said with anger, has behind it an intent to control the other person through punishment. The real communication is “You have behaved in a way that is unacceptable to me, so I am punishing you by withdrawing from you.” “The dinner reservations are for 7:00,” can be said in a tone that says, “…and you better be there.”

Asking for help in moving the couch can be either a request or a demand, depending upon the intent. A request can be answered, “Sorry, I’m really busy right now. I will help you later,” without repercussions. When the same thing is said as a demand, the other person is not allowed to say no without negative consequences.

You can ask someone why he or she is upset with you from a true desire to learn, or from an intent to control. When your intent is to control, you will likely argue with whatever the person says, trying to talk him or her out of feeling upset.

When you are upset, you can ask for help because you really do want to learn and take responsibility for your feelings, or because you want the other person to fix you, to take care of you, to rescue you. People often want to communicate their feelings to get the other person to change, rather than to learn and take responsibility for their own feelings.

Problems with communication will always occur when the intent is to control.

When my clients say, “We can’t communicate,” I immediately know that one or both of them are coming from an intent to control in their communications.

The intent to control often creates power struggles in relationships. While most people certainly want to be in control, they do not want to be controlled. So when one person is coming from the intent to control, the other person may respond with resistance. Power struggles result when one person behaves in a controlling way and the other person resists being controlled.

When one person is intent on controlling and the other gives in to keep the peace, it may seem like the relationship is working. However, the compliant person is often covertly angry and may resist in another area, such as distancing sexually. When you give yourself up to avoid conflict, you generally resent the person you give yourself up to, which doesn’t create the emotional intimacy necessary to feel sexually intimate.

Next time you want to communicate with your partner, ask yourself, “Why do I want to communicate?” If you discover that you are hoping to get the other person to change, consider doing an Inner Bonding process instead – deciding how to take care of yourself instead of trying to get your partner to change. You might discover that you get a far better result.

Think about the last time you tried to communicate with your partner. Now, be honest with yourself – why did you want to communicate?

The chances are that, if you wanted to communicate about an interesting or funny situation that happened to you, or about your own learning and growth – with no agenda for your partner to change, your partner was more than willing to listen. But, if you wanted to communicate about your feelings of unhappiness about something your partner did or was doing, he or she may not have been so receptive. Or, if you were being a victim and complaining about someone or a situation, and wanting sympathy rather than real help, your partner might have tuned you out.

Too often, communicating your “feelings” is a way of making your partner responsible for your feelings. He or she has to change for you to feel okay or do something to take responsibility for your feelings. When this is the case, your partner might be less than enthusiastic about communicating, because his or her experience is that you are using your feelings as a form of blame and control. No one likes to be at the other end of that.

When couples consult with me and state “We can’t communicate,” I immediately know that, in one way or another, they are both trying to control each other rather than learn. What they really mean is that they can’t communicate about problems because one or both are not open to learning about themselves and the other. One or both are trying to get the other to change, rather than learning about how they are each creating their own problems or the problem between them and learning about what loving actions they each need to take.

Many couples, at the beginning of their relationship, say, “We can talk to each other for hours.”

Yet later in the relationship they “can’t communicate.” This is because at the beginning of the relationship they were not making the other person responsible for their feelings, nor trying to control the other person. They were sharing themselves and listening to the other to LEARN about each other.

However, within a short time of moving into a committed relationship, they often stop learning and start controlling. Instead of giving and sharing, they are now trying to get something from each other. They get stuck in a system where they each want control over getting what they want from the other person, such as understanding, acceptance, time, attention, approval, affection, or sex. As soon as they try to have control over getting what they want, they are likely to get into power struggles, as one or both resist being controlled, or one continually gives in and then feels used and resentful.

What do you usually do when you get stuck with someone and can’t communicate?

  • Do you try harder to get your point across, talking louder or faster?
  • Do you get angry, shouting to intimidate the other person into hearing you and/or agreeing with you?
  • Do you cry in frustration?
  • Do you feel resigned, give in and just listen quietly to the other person?
  • Do you walk away or hang up the phone in a huff, withdrawing your love in the hope of punishing the other person into hearing you?
  • Do you grab a drink or food to avoid your feelings?
  • Do you turn on the TV or open a book?
  • Do you ruminate about how wrong the other person is and what you wish you could say to them?

What happens within you and with your relationship when you do any of these things?

Generally, what happens is that you and the other person are distant for a while and then things calm down, but it may be some time before you and your partner, friend, child, parent, or co-worker feel comfortable talking with each other or being around each other again.

There is a better way to approach the situation when you can’t communicate.

First, it’s important to understand WHY you can’t communicate.

Good communication and conflict resolution flow naturally when two or more people are open to learning about themselves and each other.

This means that it is more important to you to learn from the situation than it is to be right and win.

It is impossible to communicate effectively when one person is not open to learning.

Think about it for a minute. How often does it work to resolve an issue or reach understanding if one person is attached to controlling the outcome of the conversation? Yet how often do you keep trying and trying while frustration is building?

What would you do if you 100% accepted that there is no way of being heard or understood when the other person is closed to learning, and there is no way you are going to hear or understand when you are closed to learning?

The first thing to do when you can’t communicate is to check in with yourself and make sure that you are open to learning. If you check in and discover you are closed, angry, blaming, defensive, or stressed, or that you have an agenda, then you either need to shift your intent from controlling to learning, or you need to accept that this is not a good time for you to talk. You might say, “I think I’m feeling too frustrated right now to talk about this. Let’s try again in half an hour.” Then you disengage and do some inner work to get yourself open and caring and then go back and try again.

If you check in and you are open, the next thing to do might seem simple, but it’s incredibly challenging for most of us. You need to 100% accept that, if you are stuck in communicating, the other person is not open, and that there is nothing you can do about it. It’s very hard for most of us to accept that we have no control over whether another person chooses to be open or closed, caring or uncaring, controlling or accepting.

If you 100% accepted your lack of control over the other person’s intention, and 100% accepted that you can’t resolve anything when one person is closed, then you can take loving action on your own behalf.

One healthy action you can take is to say, “We seem to be stuck in our communication right now. Let’s try it again in half an hour.” Notice you are not accusing the other person of being closed, which would be a form of control. You are merely stating that you are stuck.

The challenge now is to keep your heart open so that when the other person is open, you are too. This means that you walk away with love rather than anger and tend inside to any sadness or heartache over the lack of connection with the other person.

If the other person never opens, then you need to accept that there is no way of resolving anything with that person, and you need to open to learning about how to take loving care of yourself in the face of that truth.

When you each learn how to take responsibility for your own feelings, let go of trying to control the other, and move into an intent to learn about yourself and each other, you will regain your ability to communicate. You don’t even need to “learn how” to communicate! Good communication is natural when the intent of the communication is to learn, rather than to control.

One form of controlling communication that people often believe is caring is to point out their partner’s flaws. They erroneously believe that it will help to make that person a better person. But the intent behind pointing out flaws is not loving – it is controlling.

By pointing out flaws, you hope that your partner will let go of the things that you don’t like and become more the person you want him or her to be. Now, be honest with yourself – is it working?


Your partner might have one of three major responses to your judgments. 

  1. He or she might try very hard to become what you want them to be, thereby losing themselves. You might find that the more your partner tries to comply with your wishes, the less attractive he or she becomes to you. People who give themselves up are generally seen as doormats – not as personally powerful and attractive people. So, while your partner might try to change to be what you think you want him or her to be, you might find yourself losing interest.
  2. Your partner might be a person who hates being controlled – hates being told what to do and how to be. When this is the case, he or she might shut down to you or get angry at you, resisting being controlled by you. 
  3. If your partner gives themself up to please you, they might resent you and turn off to you sexually.

Since this doesn’t foster close, loving, intimate relationships – ask yourself again: Is it working?

Are you with a partner who is always pointing out what he or she thinks is “wrong” with you? How do you respond to this? Are you the compliant type or the resistant type? How is this affecting you and your relationship?

Neither compliance nor resistance is loving to yourself. In both of these responses, you are abandoning yourself. It is obvious to see that giving yourself up is a form of self-abandonment, and it’s also a form of control, the hope being that if you form yourself into who you think your partner wants you to be, he or she will love you. Now, honestly, is it working?

It may be harder to see that resistance is a form of self-abandonment as well as a form of control – control over not being controlled. Instead of being who you are and doing what you want to do, you are reactive to the other person, resisting being controlled by him or her. It is actually another form of giving yourself up because you are not doing what you want to do but instead just resisting what the other person wants. Again, be honest with yourself – it is working to create a healthy loving relationship? Is it working to create a sense of personal self-worth?

This unloving relationship system can change by learning to take loving care of yourself. As the one who judges, you need to learn to take your eyes off trying to change your partner and put them on yourself – on how to take loving care of yourself regardless of what your partner is doing. You need to accept that trying to control your partner by pointing out flaws only creates a lack of intimacy.

As the one who is being judged, you need to stop being a reactor and start speaking up for yourself. You might feel terrific if, instead of complying or resisting, you were to say something like, “I’m not available to be judged by you. When you want to be accepting, let me know. Meanwhile, I’m going to read a book, or take a walk, or go out with a friend,” and so on. We train people how to treat us, and by no longer being reactive to being judged and instead taking loving care of yourself, you might find that your partner gives up pointing out your flaws.

When you stop resisting or complying, you might open to learning about whether what your partner is telling is actually in your highest good. Perhaps your partner is offering you a gift of awareness rather than trying to control you.

A very important aspect of being a loving adult and creating positive communication is setting loving boundaries for yourself. Whether or not a boundary is loving depends upon which aspect of you is setting the boundary – the wounded self or the loving adult.

The intent of the wounded self in setting a boundary is to have control over not being controlled or rejected by another. The wounded self comes from the fear of being invaded, rejected, engulfed, abandoned, seen as wrong, bad, or unworthy, and projects these possibilities from the past onto the present moment. Instead of discerning what is actually happening in the moment, the wounded self protects ahead of time, just in case someone may be invading or rejecting. The wounded self enters an interaction already defended against his or her fears.

The wounded self believes that a boundary is telling someone else what to do or not do. This isn’t a boundary – it’s an attempt to control, and it has no power because we generally can’t make others do what we want them to do.

The intent of the loving adult in setting a boundary is to take loving care of yourself in the moment. The loving adult knows that a boundary is something you set for yourself, letting the other person know what you are going to do if their unloving behavior continues, such as, “When you blame me for your feelings, I will disengage and not have the conversation,” and then, of course, you need to follow through.

The loving adult discerns whether another is open or closed, loving or unloving. The loving adult is compassionately aware of the feelings of the inner child in the moment, which is Step One of Inner Bonding. If there is anything other than peace and fulness within, the loving adult immediately moves into an intention to learn – Step Two of Inner Bonding, to determine what the inner child is reacting to – Step Three of Inner Bonding, and how to handle it lovingly, which is Step Four of Inner Bonding. The loving adult then sets the boundary, which is Step Five of Inner Bonding, to take care yourself. Sometimes setting boundaries can be done softly, along with an intent to learn with the other, for example, “I don’t like being spoken to with this anger. Do you want to talk about what is upsetting you?” Other times, when you already know the other will not open, the boundary needs to be set firmly and acted upon immediately, saying something like “This doesn’t feel good. I’m going to take a walk and maybe we can talk about it later,” while disengaging from the conversation. Both forms of setting boundaries are forms of effective communication.

When being right or not being rejected or controlled by another is more important than being loving to yourself and others, your wounded self is in charge. When you find yourself feeling righteous, resistant, judgmental, angry, or shut down, notice your intent. What is most important to you in this moment? Are you afraid that opening to learning and loving makes you too vulnerable to being controlled by others? Do you feel that opening your heart is giving in to someone who wants you to be open? Are you afraid that you will not know how to take good care of yourself if someone gets angry, critical, or in some other way invasive or rejecting? If this is what you are experiencing, then you need to be honest with yourself regarding whether you are communicating from your loving adult with an intent to learn, or from your wounded self with an intent to control.

By learning and practicing Inner Bonding, you will create the new neural pathways for the loving adult and become more and more aware of your intent. The practice of Inner Bonding is a powerful pathway to creating positive, loving, and effective communication with your partner and others who are important to you in your life.

I invite you to heal your relationships with my 30-Day online video relationship course: Wildly, Deeply, Joyously in Love.

And you can learn so much about loving yourself and creating loving relationships from my recent books:

And we have so much to offer you at our website at

I’m sending you my love and my blessings.

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