Exchanging words, spitting them carelessly off our tongue isn’t communication. We often confuse speaking with communication. We feel emotion in our bodies, blurt out sounds—air rattling chords and forcing mumbling sounds to escape our lips; a partner responds to these nonsensical words and we falsely believe we’ve communicated. Babies communicate long before they mutter their first word. Relationship communication requires the heart, seeing, hearing and knowing more than the words. In these intimate moments, we strengthen relationships through reassurance and acceptance.
We fear open communication; so, we replace communication with empty and sometimes destructive words. We are communicating, in a way, not with the meaning of our words, per se, but with loud burst of “I don’t care what you feel or think.” The sharp barbs create a barrier that communication can’t cross. Intimate communication may challenge personal positions, shake security, and demand change.
We often refuse to receive unwanted messages. We don’t want to hear that we are the cause of anger, hurt or sadness. Instead of digesting the deeper meanings of feeling, we interrupt, change directions, and project easier truths. We attack, defend or shut down, leaving our partners feeling unfelt. While each partner experiences the bland emptiness of unreceived message.
During the critical developmental years, many children experience limited and broken communications. The heritage that will sickly pass like a communicable disease from one generation to the next. The child lacking healthy examples, struggles with intimacy in adulthood. Often these children partner with others also handicapped.
The struggling young couple battle to fulfill needs using learned communications riddled with defensiveness, manipulation, threats, and projections. These dramatic exchanges fray bonds and continue the cycle. Both partners feel unfelt.
Essential Components of Relationship Communication
In Marshall B Rosenburg, Ph.D. non-violent communication he lists for basic components:
- Requests (2015).
Rosenburg promises that “when we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion.” Rosenburg is suggesting that compassion begins with clarity. Often we speak without clarity of the underlying goal. In relationships, a primary goal is strengthening the relationship.
Rosenburg’s four basics boils down the fluff, giving relationship communication meaning, and purposeful direction. We observe what we are feeling, identify feelings, know what we need, and make clear requests.
Reassurance and Relationship Communication
Parents, when caring for an infant, occasionally encounter confusing communications. The child is insoluble; his diaper is dry, her tummy is full, and she has been burped—but continues to cry. Good parents, while unaware of the cause, continue to hold and comfort the child. Intimate communication is not always about problem solving. Couples can survive unresolved differences if the underlying messages of love and acceptance remains strong. To achieve this, we must consistently validate a partners emotions.
With a child, even when tired from our own cares, troubles an anxiety, surviving the sleepless nights requires tremendous emotional strength. But with a romantic partner, where our security is tightly wound to their acceptance, unknown disruptions easily rock our emotional stability. Our patience is short. Our ego strength depletes and we lash out. We must catch these indiscretions. Pause the conflict, seek repair, and validate emotions and the overall security of the relationship.
Caryl E. Rusbult, a distinguished professor of psychology at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, wrote, “one of the most important functions of communication is to regulate intimacy, either increasing closeness between two people or widening the gap that separates them” (2004, Kindle location 589).
Conveying Deep Emotions During Relationship Communication
Intimate communication during conflict can’t be accomplished on auto pilot. We must proceed mindfully, aware of our underlying feelings and goals. We can’t effectively communicate without a healthy integration of emotion.
Robert Augustus Masters wrote, “emotion is the central station of communication, the connecting fabric of relationship, the currency of intimacy, the life blood of embodied sentience, both moving and motivating us, whatever our circumstances” (2013).
Once we identify our feelings, knowing the message we wish to convey, we still must proceed cautiously. Sharing poignant feelings easily threatens a partner’s security. Some emotional repression has been shown to benefit long relationships. When sharing, we should carefully begin, using a calm tone at an appropriate time, guarding against deviations from the topic, and constantly reassuring the security of the connection.
“We must communicate with mindfulness, aware of the emotions residing in the body.”~T. Franklin Murphy
Jean-Philippe Laurenceau and Lisa Feldman Barrett wrote “intimacy results from a process that is initiated when one person (the speaker) communicates personally relevant and revealing information to another person (the listener). The speaker discloses factual information, thoughts, or feelings and may further communicate emotions through nonverbal behaviors (e.g., gaze, touch, body orientation; see Patterson, 1984). As the intimacy process continues, the listener must respond to the speaker by disclosing personally relevant information, expressing emotion, and emitting various behaviors” (2004, Kindle Location, 6,702).
Communicating feelings is more than how it is received. The underlying need is for the speaker, the sharer of intimate details of their feelings, to perceive that their message is appropriately and respectfully received.
Relationship Communication Stoppers
Nasty communication stoppers lurk beneath consciousness, creeping into words, showing through facial expressions, and effectively dividing partners. We must eliminate communication stoppers to enjoy intimacy; not a simple task. We easily overlook passive-aggressive snipes and subtle attacks because they have always existed in our environments. The poor examples of bonding seamlessly blend into every important relationship. To succeed, we must expertly pull these communication bombs out of our repertoire and defuse them.
We must communicate with mindfulness, aware of the emotions residing in the body. We can’t clearly communicate feelings if they remain murky even to ourselves. Accordingly, we need awareness of our own feelings. When our inner lives are chaotic, we can’t interact with order. Communication between two people has a purpose, seeking answers to unknown questions.
When underlying the words is confusion and frustration, expressing these discomforts to a partner is difficult; receiving messages polluted with garbage becomes impossible to decipher. However, partners struggling to convey feelings can still be comforted.
Moralistic judgments quickly end open conversation. We sit on the throne of self righteousness and label a partner. In worst case scenarios, we begin an onslaught of name calling with an intent to hurt. Rosenburg explains, “One kind of life-alienating communication is the use of moralistic judgments that imply wrongness or badness on the part of people who don’t act in harmony with our values” (2015). The Sufi poet Rumi beautifully expressed, “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
Outside Windows of Tolerance
Everybody has an emotional threshold, ignoring a partner’s emotional limitations is disastrous. Their flooded system stymies reception and intended messages remain undelivered. Honest and intimate communications over a specific incident may quickly morph into character insults. We originally desired to discuss a specific hurt; but the issue gets lost in generalities. The specific triggering event simply segues into the vicious reoccurring argument over power, victimhood, and rightness. The new issue remains unresolved.
Instead of connecting through problem resolution, the aroused emotions from hurtful comments further the resentments, planting each partner firmer in their self-righteous interpretations, blaming the other for the faltering relationship. Instead of healing wounds, the poor delivery inflicts new injury, damaging trust. The relationship has repeatedly proved to be unsafe for openness.
Vulnerability through openness serves no purpose, only creating painfully repercussions.
Usually the problem disrupting healthy exchange is not singular; both partners share in the blame and must examine their roles to this hurtful merry-go-round. The conversations move from attacks to counterattacks, deeply entrenching each partner into protective worn out routines. The pattern of communication threatens every bodies safety, even the tender eyes of the next generation watching and learning about love.
Voicing hurt is difficult. Sharing hurt may ignite defensiveness because of the unsaid but interpreted blame. Loud and clear the message arrives, whether intended or not, “I hurt because of YOU.” Criticisms often feel like rejection. Security is disrupted. These corrective conversations dangerously unsettle hope. Actions, facial expressions, and tones expose underlying feelings—even if words are vague. We must master these critical moments, delivering clear messages within a framework that is able to be received.
If intimate communication has been missing, with neither partner capable of artfully expressing hurt, we must integrate feelings back into the relationship. A partner previously bombarded with cutting flogs of their shortcomings, will not immediately and welcomingly receive correction. The damaged connection will require time to heal. We prepare for intimacy by first strengthening security with genuine expressions of appreciation, acceptance and love.
John Gottman suggests a ratio of five positive communications to a single negative. Negative comments damage closeness; too much aggression and the home becomes dangerous. This applies even when the comments are warranted. We eventually must communicate hurts; but the success of these critical communications depends on the previous groundwork being applied, strengthening the growing bonds.
Security needs nurturing. No one can weather a constant storm of complaints without the necessary replacing and securing of weakening shingles.
Differences don’t destroy a relationship; the manner we communicate those differences might. Differences are threatening. When we effectively communicate about perceived difference, reassuring with love, the differences become less threatening. We discover our partners more willing to accommodate our expertly expressed and non-accusing feelings.
With intimacy, we communicate to create a bond not to force change. A secure partner can listen without underlying feelings of reproach. Important relationship communications will continue to provoke emotions even with skilled presentation. Often much is at stake. But by processing the disrupting emotions with calmness, and suppressing some of the unneeded fluff, we maintain essential openness where intimacy dwells. We’re not repressing the strong emotions, ignoring their existence, but soothing them, not allowing fear to invade openness.
When emotions approach our threshold, we must disengage and step away to regain composure. Likewise, if a partner is reaching their limits, we also must step back and allow them to disengage. With intimate communication, we can’t jam a message down the suffocating throat of an over-stimulated partner.
The goal is for both partners to feel felt and respected; this can occur even when opinions remain un-reconciled. Communication is an art, never perfected but easily improved. Reach down into your heart discover what is there, reach into your partners heart, and discover what is there. Open the pathway between each other, uninhibited by the protecting egos, and communicate with your hearts.
Laurenceau, Jean-Philippe; Barrett, Lisa Feldman (2004). Intimacy as an Interpersonal Process: The Importance of Self-Disclosure, Partner Disclosure, and Perceived Partner Responsiveness in Interpersonal Exchanges. In Close Relationships: Key Readings (Key Readings in Social Psychology). Editor Caryl E. Rusbult. Psychology Press; 1st edition.
Masters, Robert Augustus (2013). Emotional Intimacy: A Comprehensive Guide for Connecting with the Power of Your Emotions. Sounds True.
Rosenburg, Marshall B. (2015). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships. PuddleDancer Press; 3rd edition.
Rusbult. Caryl E. (2004). Close Relationships: Key Readings (Key Readings in Social Psychology). Psychology Press; 1st edition.