“We just don’t communicate!” is a remark I regularly hear from couples I’m working with. It‘s something they honestly believe and are usually surprised when they hear my response.

“It’s not possible. You cannot not communicate.”

Even if you say nothing at all, and avoid your spouse by standing behind a wall of silence, you are always communicating something. It may be disdain, disrespect or even contempt, but your spouse gets the message.

“But that’s not the message I intended. I just didn’t want to make matters worse—so I said nothing.”

Silence usually leaves the spouse on the receiving end feeling disconnected, misunderstood or lonely. When couples say “we don’t communicate” what they’re really saying is “we don’t understand each other.” And that is a whole different issue. One that is often filled with fear and shame.

How can this person who professes to love me, who has spent so much time with me, not know me? Oh, no! Maybe we’re just not right for each other.

There are reasons why understanding one another is difficult, including experiential and circumstantial differences.

First, men and women experience the world very differently. How does a woman explain to a man what it’s like to birth a baby? How can a man adequately describe what a jolt to the family jewels feels like? There is an experiential chasm that cannot be fully crossed.

There are also circumstances that make understanding difficult, such as being raised in different families; different parts of the country or different cultures altogether. Being more introverted or more active than your spouse; one a strict disciplinarian, the other particularly frugal.

There are many spectrums in which couples find themselves on different sides of center. Not right or wrong, just different. With as many obstacles there are to fully understand one another, we should be amazed and delighted when we do feel understood. It is a victory truly worth celebrating. So celebrate!

But I haven’t yet addressed the biggest hindrance to deeply understanding each other: we often aim at an entirely different target. We don’t want to achieve understanding. What we want to achieve is agreement.

“If you really understood me you would agree with me!”

It’s good to consider the well known statement “agree to disagree.” Many people struggle with this idea because to them it means accepting defeat, frustration and ultimately, loneliness. But what if understanding could be achieved—and deeply rewarding—even in the absence of agreement? 

For example; My wife and I have an ongoing discussion about how clean my office should be. Jan is neat and organized. She’s not obsessive, but she enjoys a sense of calm when things are in place. I work with piles of bills and unread papers on my desk and books on the floor—and an unknown stack of stuff in the corner. A clean office is not important to me, so it stays in a state of semi-disarray—and we don’t agree on the definition of the word “semi.”

Jan will admit, however, that I do get things done. I pay bills on time. I work diligently at the first of the year to file our taxes. I stay in touch with family and never miss an appointment. Plus, my fantasy hockey lineup is always submitted with an eye on the latest injury reports!

Because we have worked at understanding each other, Jan feels the freedom to ask me to tidy up my office, and because it helps her feel calm, I do enough to bridge the gap—and on that we have chosen to agree on our disagreements.

If I simply replied, “Yes, dear,” and schlepped downstairs to clean, all the while building my wall of silence even higher, she would feel my disdain and the cycle of silent communication would start all over again. Having a clean basement would not be as satisfying to her as she expected, and I would never understand why it matters to her in the first place.

Feeling disconnected, misunderstood or lonely doesn’t come from being in disagreement, it comes from not taking the time to truly listen. The next time you hear yourself thinking, “we don’t communicate” remember what you’re really saying is “we don’t understand each other.”

You cannot not communicate, so get a cup of coffee, sit down together and listen until you understand. Soon, you’ll find something you can “agree to disagree” about—and enjoy a new benefit of communication.