Communication is the life tool with which we may create and strengthen our relationships, and relationships are all about emotional safety and meaningful connections.
Communication is a tool like no other. Whether verbal or nonverbal, it is to your emotional and mental health, and relationships, what food and water are to your body. You may be wondering, if talking is such a “loving” activity why do you experience so much pain in your communications with one of the most important persons in your life, your partner?
Communication is not the problem; the real problem is allowing your subconscious minds to communicate in your defense, rather than communicating in conscious, deliberate ways that grow you personally because they energize life in your relationship. Just as we cannot not communicate, we cannot not relate. Therefore, it is not a question of whether or not communicate, rather a question of how you relate when you communicate.
How has to do with the emotional signals you are sending, distinct messages about how you feel about one another that either enhance or diminish the quality of your couple relationship. You may not be consciously aware of these signals, however, your subconscious mind is, and hypervigilantly so in situations where it thinks you perceive a threat or danger.
Alas, you are your partner are wired to seek fulfillment in the giving and receiving of your gifts of love. At the same time, you are also wired with a drive that propels you to seek to be known, recognized and valued as a unique individual. This is part of your quest for meaning and purpose in life.
Thus, the strivings for a deeper connection, on the one hand, and the strivings for being valued as unique being, on the other, create a natural tension in our relationships, seemingly pulling and pressing from opposite directions.
This tension, however, is critical to our well being. It is there, not to torment, rather to nudge us to learn what we need to know to find fulfillment, and realize all we can be as self-actualized beings. A healthy life is much like walking on a tightrope. The opposing pressures are actually invitations to learn how to live life in balance. Power struggles are inevitable in our relationship. They are the schools in which we learn both how to create and influence and make happen, as well as how to stand back, fully accept and let go. Both are essential capacities to cultivate, as we learn to manage our emotional states.
When we embrace painful emotions and fear as teachers, they help us learn how to protect our happiness, a task that is essential to us in order to realize the full richness of life. While this tension is uncomfortable and painful, it is not what produces the problems we face. In fact, suffering is a result of avoiding or not responding wisely to painful emotions we feel. Avoiding pain may be the primary culprit responsible for much of the suffering in couple and family relationships.
The real obstacles are certain meanings our brain has recorded and believes are true, in other words, a host of lies and illusions. What are the obstacles?
1. Fear of painful emotions and fear itself
One of our biggest obstacles is that your parents, like most all parents for many generations, did not know how to regard painful emotions, their own and their loved ones, as important teachers, opportunities to connect at deeper levels of meanings or action signals! Instead, you learned to go to one extreme or the other, either avoid, deny, reject painful emotions or fear—or wallow in them—in order to fulfill your needs to either connect or be recognized for your uniqueness. In either case, your sensory-self is hyper-vigilantly, to some degree, in charge. This means you are in survival mode, a state, where your “fight or flight” gets easily triggered, that you are not designed to be in for long periods of time. Your body burns enormous amounts of energy in survival mode. It is designed to do so to help you survive the occasional crisis. Afterwards, it needs time to repair! When the sensory-self is in charge, it is hyper-vigilantly guarding against enemy attacks in situations where, well, you are just at home with your loved ones!
2. The habits of judging, blaming and comparing
Most of us have been conditioned from childhood to compare and judge ourselves, and others, relentlessly. This is where we need healing in our lives. We need to heal from the effects of this conditioning and the consequences of practicing this way of relating to ourselves and others throughout our lives. This conditioning has taught us to look at self and the world in terms of external standards of what people “should” do, which supposedly, as we’ve also learned, determines our individual “worth” in terms of dichotomous labels of inferior/superior, deserving/undeserving, powerful/powerless, friends/enemies, and so on.
Too many of us, on too many occasions, have learned to focus our talking (and listening!) on fault-finding, blaming, and judging types of communications—seemingly persuaded that if we can “only” convince others to “see” how wrong they are (and how right we are), all problems would be solved, and everyone will be happy. Naturally, since being judged and evaluated does not meet our needs for acceptance, love, esteem, etc., in our relationships, this triggers certain levels of fear and anxiety accordingly.
In fact, it is the “shoulds” we tell ourselves in our self-talk that fuel the intensity of negative emotions of rage, depression, anxiety and fear. As an outcome, in a fault-finding environment, the natural—and strong—impulse to be valued unconditionally expresses itself as a sensitivity to conflict, and, in extreme cases, an avoidance of conflict. (And the avoidance or withdrawal from conflict is one of the most destructive patterns in couple relationships.) This patterned mind-set robs us of feeling like the agents of our lives, and instead we succumb to feeling like victims. Another problem with this worldview is that it keeps us so busy looking outside ourselves to others for approval as to what we “should” do that we forget to look inside. Thus, we miss out on tuning into inner resources, such as our intuition and wisdom, to develop the inner confidence and stamina we need to protect ourselves from taking what others do and say personally.
3. The habit of taking things personally.
The ability to not take things personally is a vital skill to have. It supports you to maintain your calm, for example, so that you are able to give the understanding a loved one needs to regulate and heal from a painful emotional experience. How we get our basic needs met, in essence, depends on how we view the world. Do we live in a world of “shoulds” or “choices”? In a “should” worldview, relationships are a competition of who’s right or wrong, who wins, who’s better, and we’re inclined to use fear, shame or guilt to motivate ourselves and others to gain the cooperation we need. Who wins in these competitions?
Of course, no one. Patterns of communication that involve blaming, fault-finding and attacking the other’s character, leave both parties feeling emotionally disconnected, detached, and drained. Even worse, it leaves persons, who intellectually “know” how much they love one another, feeling like enemies. In contrast, in a “choice” worldview, relationships are a place we go to give and contribute to making life mutually more wonderful, and easier, for one another, and we use enthusiasm and joy, to inspire hope and belief in realizing mutually beneficial outcomes in our relationships. We need a compassionate way of relating to ourselves and others that nurtures and strengthens our connections, that inspires the best efforts in all, that acknowledges each person as uniquely valued and appreciated. The focus of change needs to be on making shifts in the way we relate to others—and ourselves.
The quality of your personal lives and relationships relies on the quality of your communications. It is through how we communicate, verbally and nonverbally, that we exercise our power—the power of choice—to either strengthen and empower, or hinder and impede, the formation of healthy mutually enriching relationships. Life patiently offers us limitless opportunities to test out the power of how we choose to use our communication to relate to self and others, what works and what does not.