The Subtle Communication in Relationships and Why it Matters so Much

We got this, right?

I'm on Orlando grounds writing this. Having written about a happily ever after wedding, it seems timely that my husband and I have been here for this past week, hanging out at Disney World and its rival, Universal Studios. Having traveled together, we've gotten into a groove. But every time we go somewhere new, there's a subtle shift in our routine.

This time, it involves a water bottle.

It's hot and humid in Orlando and we try to stay hydrated. This translates to me having to pee often. Usually, there's a water fountain by the bathroom and that's also the time when I'd have my husband do re-fills so we can save time.

I thought we have this routine down, until three days in, I again handed him the bottle before I slipped into the bathroom in a hurry. I came out to the same water level. “Husband?!” I joked, as I looked down at my water bottle. He was puzzled. He thought I had wanted him to hold onto it and that was it.

What was going on in my head

Now, I could've interpreted this many different ways:

“Husband doesn't care about me”

“Husband was distracted by the attractions at the Animal Kingdom”

“I didn't say so; hence, he didn't know”

“Why do I need to spell it out? Shouldn't he know by now?”

And depending on how close, connected and accepting I feel towards him, my interpretation, and hence my response, would differ.

Imagine if we've been fighting at the “happiest place on earth”, I'll be more prone to see this as further evidence of his insensitivity. And given we're on good terms, and I know he cares and loves me, I can joke about it.

We cannot NOT communicate

We're constantly communicating to and with our partner. Whether it's a handing over of a water bottle, a shrug, a turning away, or a leaning in. We cannot NOT communicate. And depending on the state of our relationship, a simple withdrawing of the hand can have huge implications.

“You don't care about me.”

“I don't matter to you.”

“You don't want to hold my hand.”

“Here we go again!”

“What's the matter with you?”

“I can't make you happy!”

It's tiring when we're stuck at seeing ourselves and our partners in this way. There is a reason why this happens. It's because our attachment to our partner is not too different than an infant's attachment to his/her caregiver.

Longing for connection with our partner

Psychologist Sue Johnson, co-founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, speaks about a dance that we get into with our partners. To summarize, here are the rough steps:

  • we invite connection with our partner by reaching for them. We're basically asking, “Are you there for me? Are we still connected?”
  • if we don't see a response, we protest and push for one. “It's too frightening to see that we're disconnected and so out comes Anger from Inside Out.
  • If there continues to be a lack of response, or the protesting becomes too much, we turn away or shut down as a way of coping. “It hurts too much to feel rejected, or I feel too threatened when I'm attacked. I need to hide out to protect myself.”
  • as a step up from protest and push, we melt down and frantically demand from our partner as a last resort. “Hello, anybody home?! Don't withdraw from me; this hurts too much!!!”
  • in a secure relationship, we find a way to turn back to each other and reconnect. “You're really important to me and to be reassured and comforted by you is all that I really need.”

Along with developmental psychologist Edward Tronick, Johnson made a short clip demonstrating how we've been doing this dance since infancy:

Here's an earlier blog that explains this experiment further (How to Talk to your Partner about your Problems and Why this Works). 

Back to the water bottle

To the extent that I know my husband and I were still connected and he didn't perceive my teasing as criticism, we averted the full dance. That is not to say that we won't ever go back to moments of painful disconnection; rather, we'll find a way to each other again.

I love how Johnson quoted Walt Whitman at the end, “We were together, I forget the rest.”

Need help?

Navigating this dance is hard work. Need some coaching help? Give me a call!

Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond counseling practice in WA. She loves helping distressed couples learn to connect in a safe and secure way. When she's not working hard, she's playing hard. Her favorite Orlando theme park was Epcot and her favorite rides were Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Expedition Everest, Soarin' and Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem. Nemo the Musical was also quite amazing!