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Getting Your Message Across

The Problem

One of the biggest problems in couples communication is separating tone, attitude, provocation, and other aspects of the way a message is delivered from the intention of the message itself. When we are frustrated, disappointed, hurt, or otherwise in emotional pain those feelings color both the words that we use and especially the tone and volume with which we convey those words.

Joe has just gotten home from work and he and his girlfriend Cindy wasted no time getting into a prevalent argument about his being too involved in his work and her being too involved in home. The genders could be reversed or it could be a same-sex couple, and the specifics of “too involved in work” or “to involved at home” could take any number of forms, but this kind of argument happens all the time. It can go something like this:

Joe comes through the door.

Cindy (irritated tone): You were supposed to be home an hour ago.

Joe (sarcastically): Thanks for the warm greeting.

Why can’t you get home when you say you will?

I work my ass off all day then come home to this?

You never even call to tell me you’ll be late.

Well with this kind of reception, why would I want to call you at all?  At least at work people are decent to me!

Empathy Glasses

Reading between the lines with “empathy glasses,” we could imagine that what both partners are really wanting is more of a feeling of love and connection from each other. Joe and Cindy are likely disappointed, frustrated, and hurt, and all these feelings are probably amplified by the repetition of this scenario (or ones like it) numerous times over the course of their relationship. However, instead of talking about those emotions–which could ultimately lead to having more compassion for each other’s pain through the commonality of their distress and ultimate goal of connection–they voice their complaints to each other, enhancing their joint misery.

Behind the Scenes

Joe & Cindy’s painful feelings of disappointment and hurt are being expressed indirectly through their intonations of irritation and sarcasm, as well as the content of their words which are mostly directed at blaming each other. In part, sarcasm, exaggeration, and angry tones are automatic and understandable reflexes to those feelings of disappointment and hurt. However, Joe’s sarcasm is provocative, as is Cindy’s use of the word “never,” which in essence defines Joe as all-bad in his behavior of not calling. These digs at each other mostly end up keeping the blame cycle going and do not help to resolve or understand the issues.  Important underlying feelings that get lost in the scuffle include Cindy’s longing for, and missing Joe, and Joe’s wishes for acceptance and warmth.  Tragically, both partners end up feeling that the other person does not care about them.  The vicious cycle perpetuates with no end in sight until they’ve either hurt each other enough to withdraw to their corners or worn themselves out.

One Sentence. Multiple Messages.

Every message contains at least two parts.  For the sake of simplicity I will describe these two parts as the intended message, and what is sometimes called a meta-message, or a message about the message. You can think of the intended message as a letter, and the meta-message as the package, or envelope, that the message comes in.  In the case of this example–and actually many, if not most “live” communications–there are more than these two parts because there are underlying desires that are even less obvious. So let’s take Cindy’s first remark: “You were supposed to be home an hour ago.” In itself this could be taken as a simple statement of fact.  (Many struggling couples would not even be able to take the remark as a statement of fact, however.  They could easily get into an argument about the meaning and degree of joint agreement about the phrase “supposed to be home an hour ago.”)  But leaving aside perceptions of the veracity of the statement, the intended message is something like: “I was expecting you home an hour ago [and I am feeling disappointed].”  Taking the sentence literally would only include the expecting part.  The feeling disappointed part is mostly conveyed in Cindy’s irritated tone, which is the meta-message.  To distinguish the two, I added the feeling part in square brackets.

The Envelope and the Letter

However, Joe probably does not even hear the disappointment. Because of their likely prior history on this issue and Cindy’s irritated tone, Joe probably mostly hears that she is angry and he is to blame. So you could say the letter is “You are home later than I expected,” and the envelope delivering the letter is “I am angry and it is your fault.”  Which of these do you think is most likely to determine his response?   Remember, most communication problems in relationships are about emotion, not facts.  Hearing “I am angry and it is your fault,” from the person you love and care about is quite a blow.  So Joe comes back with a counterstrike: “Thanks for the warm greeting.”

With Joe’s response the meta-message spins the delivered message 180° from the spoken one. The spoken message taken at face value would be an appreciation of warmth. But the sarcastic tone makes it into its opposite, which is an accusation of coldness. So this envelope is like a fun house mirror that twists the letter inside out. Additionally, the sarcastic meta-message conveys hostility while simultaneously completely failing to address any of Cindy’s messages, other than fighting fire with fire.  All this in the course of five words.

You can imagine these envelopes as being explosive, covered with razor wire or with broken glass. When the envelope lands in your hand you can’t even get to the letter because you’re too busy trying to stop the bleeding. Once both partners are bleeding–which often happens within the moments of the very first interaction–it’s almost impossible for anything productive or loving to follow.

So What To Do?

So how to soften the envelope so that you can get your letter safely into the hands of your partner? The best way that I know of is to be able to identify and label your emotions. By doing this your message and your meta-message become the same thing: they are congruent. Done well (which is a high bar, I know) labeling and expressing your emotions does several things:

  • As mentioned,  it unifies the envelope and the letter, making it a more straightforward communication to receive
  • It greatly reduces the accusing, attacking and defensive overtones which generally only serve to make the interaction worse
  • Instead of conveying an intellectual or moralistic judgment, it expresses your internal experience, making your message more intimate and inviting
  • Consequently, the conversation is more likely to be productive as well as bringing the two of you closer to each other instead of driving each other apart

Joe and Cindy Redux

Here’s how Joe and Cindy’s conversation might have gone if they had been able to know and talk about what they each were feeling.  Feeling words are underlined to highlight them:

Joe comes through the door.

Cindy: I was worried and a little bit hurt because I was expecting you an hour ago and I didn’t know what was going on.

Joe: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to worry you. I’m feeling anxious and overwhelmed about work.

Cindy: I’m sorry work is so rough and I’d like to hear more about that.  But when you get home later than I expected I start to feel sad and scared that you’ve lost sight of me and don’t care so much about me anymore. [Notice Cindy says that it’s her fear he’s lost sight – she doesn’t attribute it to him as an accusatory fact.]

Joe: Oh no!  It makes me sad to hear that. I love you so much!

Obviously this is an idealized conversation, but not out of the realm of possibility. Some “master” couples do something like this all the time.  Both partners are reaching underneath whatever irritation or annoyance they might have with each other to understand and articulate the softer feelings that are driving their anger. And if knowing your underlying feelings is too much of a stretch for your, or all you can feel is anger, it can help just to label whatever emotion you are aware of at the moment. So for example, you could say “I’m feeling really angry right now.” If you can refine it a little more–for instance to frustration or disappointment if those are true in the experience–even better.

Sometimes having expressed the anger part, you will have more access to the deeper feelings. Research has shown that labeling negative feelings for yourself helps to reduce their discomfort and intensity. On the contrary, blaming, yelling, and thinking critical or negative thoughts about your partner all work to keep both of you angry. Also, resist the urge to problem-solve until you and your partner each have a pretty good understanding of what the other is feeling and why. Without a foundation of emotional understanding and connection, problem-solving is less likely to be helpful.

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