When you understand yourself more deeply and you’re able to be more compassionate towards who you are you will be a better relational partner.

This might be a bold prediction and I’ve never known it not to be proven true. Simply by becoming aware of the idea that you have biological process happening inside of you at any moment, you begin to understand that not every response is calm, rational, and calculated. Sometimes, your brain just acts on your behalf. When you consider how your upbringing and your experiences have impacted throughout the course of your life, you can start to understand the conditions under which your brain starts to react on auto-pilot.

When you say those things that you never meant to say.

When you bring up those things that you’ve said were long forgotten.

When you are scared. Or Anxious. Or Lonely.

And, so you do the work. You look inward. You find a therapist. You think about all of the memories. You find yourself on this path towards self-discovery and, maybe even self compassion.

And then you meet someone.

Another human being catches your eye. You see him from across the room. Something draws you to her. When you connect, it’s combustion. It’s electric when you’re together and empty when you’re apart. You have found someone you want to invest in.

A relationship begins. It’s exciting. It can be hot and heavy. All the while, you begin to get to know each other. You find the little things that you love about one another. After some time, though, you realize that he’s not perfect. You might find yourself becoming annoyed at some of the little things that she does. This builds up until the important milestone that every relationship must experience: the first fight.

Like a Comet in the Sky

We have spent a lot of time discussing all of the things that make us each unique – the things that have formed us. Our biology and experiences, the relationships that we have had in the past. Even more, our family history, our cultural values. As we grow and develop and journey through life, we are like a comet with all of these realities trailing behind us, lighting up the night sky.

When we fall in love, our trajectories adjust and we begin hurtling towards the other. We long to be closer and closer. Often without warning, gravity takes over. We collide. All of a sudden, pasts and circuits and childhood memories entwine themselves. 

When we fall in love, the reality is that it can be difficult to adjust to one another’s worlds. Even though we’re similar and we think of ourselves as compatible with one another, the truth is that each one of us is unique and we each bring our own experiences and understandings of the world into the relationship. When we aren’t aware of the idea that we each bring our own realities with us, we can start to make assumptions. When we find ourselves in conflict, if we don’t approach the other with a sense of empathy, we let our assumptions take over. And this can be very dangerous for relationships.

We can start asking questions like “Don’t you understand me?” or “Why don’t you ever listen to me?” or “Is there something wrong with me?”

We Need Help Communicating

When couples come to counseling, without fail at some point in their early sessions they will say some variation of these words: “We need help communicating.”

The claims might vary. “She never tells me what’s wrong” “He always finds a way to make it about him.” “We don’t know what else to say.”

It’s worth shifting our perspective on this idea though. Perhaps we don’t need help communicating. Within the world of communication theory and family therapy, there is this idea that you cannot not communicate. To put it another way, everything communicates.

Everything you do. Everything you don’t do. The words you choose to say or the words you choose to leave out. The hours you spend watching television or the number of times you look at your phone during dinner. All of it. It all communicates. We are communicating twenty-four hours a day. We’re like a beacon, transmitting out ideas about who we are and what we value.

I would argue that we don’t need help communicating, we need help ensuring the things that we are communicating are true and valid and helpful!

Two Ways to Communicate

The good news is there are only two ways to communicate.

First, there are the things we say. We humans are verbal and so much of what we communicate to others happens through words. We can say things like:

  • I love you.
  • Please do the dishes.
  • I have a headache.
  • Don’t you even listen?

All of these messages have blatant, literal meaning, but they also have deeper subsurface layers. There can be a lot more here than meets the eye. We really like the superficial literal side of things. One argument we hear a lot during some disputes is “Well, that’s not what you said!!” The literal is easy for our brains to parse. When we have boxes for each little word and we can have a starting point that, in theory, we can all agree on.

Beyond the literal, though, there are deeper meanings and these come about as the result of exactly the sort of things we have been talking about: experiences and past relationships. You and I may both understand the idea of love differently, because we have been loved differently. The people that said that they loved us may have treated us very differently. So, while there might be a general consensus, below the surface there can be entire worlds of meaning different from anyone else’s.

The second way we communicate flows from this too. It’s not verbal so there aren’t as many discrete boxes to fit meaning into. There’s more room for error. These are the things we don’t say. Humans have had brains longer than we’ve had words. We are very good are reading non-verbal signals and assigning meaning to them. When we meet someone who is smiling we have a vastly different reaction than when someone is scowling. When we see someone flushed and showing their teeth, it might raise an emotion of fear inside us. Our brains ascribe meaning to non-verbal cues all the time.

When we vary our tone of voice. When we roll our eyes. When we cut someone off who is talking. When we look at our phone during dinner. When we show interest in sex. When we don’t show interest in sex. When we choose to listen. When we choose to be distracted.

All of these cues carry meaning. Whatever we are doing, we are always communicating. Our partner’s limbic system is tuned into these non-verbals and is constantly assessing. Comparing to things from our past.

Sometimes, our fight-or-flight center get’s triggered. Maybe there is something in the tone of voice that it picked up on. Maybe there’s an eye roll or a look that the limbic system remembers seeing somewhere before. Maybe your partner has never felt heard or understood so when you’re distracted by phones or emails or Facebook, it just reinforces a low sense of self worth.

You are always communicating. Intentionally. Unintentionally.

Everything communicates.

When you understand that your partner has their own experience and their own sense of meaning, you start to realize that what you’re intending to communicate may not actually be what’s being heard. What was meant as an innocent joke is the start of a two-day silent treatment. Instead, with this understanding you can adjust what you say and how you say it so that you partner is able to fully hear.

It also means that the listener has a job to do as well.

Because everything – even listening – communicates.

Next time: Communicating well and listening like a therapist.

This is the fifth post in a series based on a relationship enrichment seminar I conducted in September 2016, called Everything Matters. I am hoping to offer this seminar again soon in an online format. If you are interested in participating in this seminar or would like more info, please visit EverythingMattersSeminar.com and sign up. The seminar is open to all individuals and couples. Thanks!!