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!

How to Talk to your Partner about your Problems and Why this Works

Scott Webb/

Scott Webb/

How I talked to my partner

A few years ago, there was an incident that made me feel disconnected in my marriage to my husband. It bothered me enough that I brought it up the same day. At first, my husband's response made me feel like it was a joke. When I pressed further about how much it impacted me, he took it seriously and said that it wouldn't happen again. My husband is a good guy and I believed him. I still believe him, but there was something unsettling about how that conversation ended. 

How are you talking to your partner?

I bet you I'm not the only person to dread difficult conversations with my partner. Ever brought up a heavy topic and realized how hard it is to drudge through it? Or, it doesn't go well and you end up on a tangent about unresolved issues? Things get shoved under the rug, but never really resolved and the next time you argue, it's the same old, same old?

That's because these conversations are hard. It's easier to put a bandaid on it; only it's a temporary fix. You might have read about using “I statements,” balancing every 1 negative statement with 5 positive statements, or not attacking your partner. While these may be good communication skills to have, when you're emotionally charged, all those tools go out the window.

What to do instead

I remember as a kid carrying this card around that reads, “If you want to know how to keep an idiot busy for hours, turn this card over” and of course it says the same on the back. The thing is, when something doesn't work, you should really try doing differently.

Borrowing from the tradition of Emotionally Focused Therapy, here is what to do instead:

  • speak to your emotions - “I'm angry that you made me look like a fool in front of our friends.”
  • speak to how you perceived yourself - “That made me feel like I wasn't important in your eyes.”
  • speak to how you perceived your partner - “I thought you did it on purpose.”
  • speak to your deeper emotions about your relationship longing - “When that happened, I felt hurt and unloved.”
  • speak to your relationship need - “What I really want is to know that I still mattered to you and that I can trust you to have my back like I have yours.”
  • speak to what you need as a repair - “I can really use a hug right now.”

Now granted, this is meant to be a 2-way conversation and I've only given you one-side of the dialog. Considering that your partner is loving and supportive, hearing about your deeper needs would usually move them closer to you. And, if this sounds foreign, it is. But, this gets at the root of the matter, rather than staying focused on the content of what happened. Content changes, like hats, but at the core is whether two individuals feel like they're available, engaged and responsive to each others' needs.

Why this works

Emotionally Focused Therapy views adult love relationships from an attachment lens. Consider this Still Face Experiment video and how a baby reacts to a present, then distant mother:

(Please note there is a similar, longer video about babies' attachment to their fathers.)

Sue Johnson, the co-developer of EFT argues that intimate relationships mirror that of an infant-mother relationship. With almost three decades of research behind her, Sue notes that as adults:

  • we desire to maintain closeness with our partner
  • we need assurance from our partner when we're upset
  • we feel distressed when we experience distance from or a loss of connection with our partner
  • when we feel like our partner has our back, we feel more confident exploring the world
  • when we feel secure in our relationship, we could reach out and connect easily
  • if that secure bond with our partner is threatened, we get anxious, angry and controlling or we avoid contact altogether

All of these responses and patterns are mirrored in the above video. 

Can you see how unless you speak to the threatened bond between you and your partner, the argument will just play itself out in similar ways the next time?

What it looked like for me

So I went back to my husband a couple of years ago and told him how that particular issue continued to bother me. He was a little agitated at first and then surprised that it remained an unresolved issue. “I thought we've talked about this?!” He again reassured me that it wouldn't happen again and that I could trust him and him me. For reasons I couldn't pinpoint at first, his response was still dissatisfying.

Two months ago, I went back to him, yet again after an intensive EFT training. That conversation was heart-palpitating, armpit-sweating, and tears-flowing and I wanted to talk about everything else but that. But trust me, it was well worth it. I told my husband that this incident three years ago continued to bother me because I felt disconnected and hurt and that it threatened our relationship. I told him that I do trust him but I also needed to know that he loved me.

Husband was agitated, but softened up when he heard that I felt hurt. He's in disbelief that I wouldn't bring this up again a 4th time, but reassured me that he loved me and apologized that his actions hurt me.

I can understand why my husband would be in disbelief, but what he didn't see was a healing that happened with that repair. I felt lighter and closer to him. No further conversation is needed because that sense of safety and security is restored and deepened. What's more, when we feel safe and secure in our relationship, we can be vulnerable to share our deepest fears and longings. That same evening, my husband turned around and shared situations where he felt left out and I've since been mindful of how to better include him. Vulnerability begets vulnerability and it brings us closer together.

Need help?

That sense of connection, safety and closeness is not built overnight. It takes two people who want it and are willing to work on it. See me as a coach. I'm here when you're ready.

Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond counseling practice in WA. She loves helping committed couples who have grown apart find each other again. She's recognizing that during difficult conversations with her husband, she'd rather talk about the pretty skies or the crawling spider than the issue at hand. Yet, she's learning to stick with it. Seeing the fruits of that, she'd want to help you do the same.