A Deeper Look at “Talk” in Intimate Relations
When I met this morning with Jeff and Erika, the topic was how they talk to each other. These two people love each other; they’ve been married 31 years, have three grown children, and yet have never been able to really communicate at an emotionally intimate level. That’s sad.
One of the main problems here isw that they are both talking “head” language. Erika is a “big feeling” person but she communicates in “head” language instead of “feeling” talk. Steve is a “head” person. While he’s vaguely aware of his feelings, he’s completely unable to label or talk about them; he only speaks “head” language. What do I mean by “head” and “feeling” talk? And why is this important?
- When we talk “head” talk, we’re:
- Greeting the other person.
- Reporting some information, like: what we’re done that day, what we’re going to do, what classes we had, what errands we did and so on.
- Telling our thoughts, concepts, ideas, opinions, etc. (These sentences often start with “You.”)
- When we talk “feeling” talk, we’re:
- Remembering and sharing feelings from the past. (We might share how our childhood Christmas holidays felt.) Or,
- Telling the feelings that we’re having right now. (“I love you,” or “I’m worried,” or “I’m angry.” These sentences always start with “I.”)
“I” sentences are always the best way to go. Two positives come from them:
- Because we’re starting our conversation with “I” sentences, it’s obvious to the listeners that what we’re saying is about us, not them. It’s nonthreatening, so the listeners can concentrate on what we’re saying.
- We’re not using “you” sentences. This seems obvious but many people don’t think about or know about the alarm others feel when we start sentences with “You.”
Notice that any time we’re talking to others and we start our conversation with “You,” people tend to bristle. They expect an accusation or attack or sarcasm or blame or something personally negative and their defenses come up. When that happens, our own defenses rise, the conversation becomes competitive and we’re both off and running to “win.”
What’s Wrong in This Relationship?
Jeff and Erika talk “head” talk; they’re often starting their sentences with “you” or in some other way that makes them each feel defensive. Then the frustration and impatience rise and the competition begins.
Because Erika and Jeff sometimes start their sentences with I feel, they think that they’re sharing their feelings. How can that be? It happens because we don’t really listen to ourselves when we talk. Jeff and Erika don’t. They’re so intent on driving their points of view home that they aren’t aware of: (a) how they’re saying their thoughts, or even more important, (b) how what they’re saying will sound to their partner.
Jeff and Erika get caught up in the content of the conversation. By content I’m referring to the subject they’re talking about. They are each unaware of how they’re sending their messages (the process between them).
Here’s an example: Erika opened a conversation with Jeff about their oldest son, who is 33. He’s planning to propose to Tonya, his live-in partner of the last two years.
Erika has strong negative feelings about Tonya and she wanted to talk with Jeff about some of Tonya’s behaviors. But, without realizing it, she actually began by challenging her husband, asking him in a stern voice, “What are you going to say to our son when he asks you what you think about marriage to this woman?”
He responded to her challenge with a strong, closed statement of his own answering her question this way, “Well, I’m not going to say much about it because Michael is 33 and it’s not my business.” He really wasn’t open to any more talk about this topic; he already felt “on guard” and controlled by Erika. His response made Erika even angrier than she had been. They were already off and running in an argument (head talk), neither one felt heard by the other and Erika’s concerns remained unresolved.
Did Erika express any of her feelings about the upcoming engagement? No, she did not. Instead, she told Jeff: (1) what he should say to their son, (2) her ideas about Tonya’s behaviors, and (3) her thoughts about Jeff’s intentions. What do you think Jeff wanted to say?
Fortunately, he didn’t say anything.
This process is what I mean when I say these two people and all of the other couples that I’ve talked with over the years talk about the subject (the content) and pay little or no attention to how (the process) they speak to each other.
Most people are capable on their own of solving whatever problem (whatever content) they’re struggling with. It’s in how they talk to each other (the process) where they need some help.
Jeff and Erika need a different way of talking to each other. So, we started with “I” sentences. An interesting thing happened, though, when I asked them to start owning their thoughts and feelings by starting their sentences with the word “I.”
They did start their sentences with “I.” Trying to do what I asked, Erika, especially, said “I feel that Jeff . . . “quite a few times. Clearly, this is not a “feeling” sentence, so I had to stop her. Why? When we use the phrase “I feel,” it should be followed by a “feeling” word, not anything else. More examples: “I really felt embarrassed when . . .” “I feel humiliated when workmen tell me . .. .” “I felt stupid when . . .” “Right now I’m feeling confused because . . . “
Yes, this talk is tricky at first because we’re not used to it. But, you can see that when we each do this, we only communicate about ourselves and not the other guy. So, it really cuts down on, hopefully even eliminates, defensive reactions.
Because Jeff and Erika had trouble identifying their feelings this morning (just like we all do when we haven’t tried this before), I gave them a “feeling word” sheet. I asked them to practice: (1) getting connected to what they’re feeling, and then (2) name their feeling so that they can (3) speak honestly to their partner about themselves. Without defenses and without pulling up their partner’s defenses.
We feel respected or not; we feel cared for or not; we feel understood or not. If we aren’t spoken to in such a way that we feel respected, cared for and understood, we don’t feel an emotional connection, any emotional intimacy. Feeling emotionally safe is really what’s necessary for two people to completely let down their guards, concentrate on the problem and solve it instead of using their energy to defend themselves.
Where Erika and Jeff really need to concentrate their time and their focus is on how they speak and listen to each other.
Big Thoughts in This Article.
If you are having some of the same or even similar problems with your couple communication, try the following.
- Spend some serious time listening to how you talk to your partner. Develop the habit of filtering what you say and how you say it before it comes out your mouth. This cuts down on reactive talk.
- Get in touch with your feelings. Yes, this will take practice but I promise you, it’ll be worth it.
- Listen to others talk and practice identifying head from feeling talk.
- Lastly, think about how you are talking to your partner. Strive for respect, care and clarity in your talk.
Warmest wishes until next time,
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