The Sub-Titles of our Relationships

December 24, 2009

4 min read


Sometimes what's not being said speaks the loudest.

We all know that when we converse with others, the communication is not limited to the spoken word. We communicate so much more non-verbally. Our tone of voice, facial expressions, eye contact, even posture, all lend depth to the words. They say a lot about our sincerity and our feelings about whatever the subject matter might be, and express even more about the quality of the relationship that exists between the two speakers.

A father comes home from work and checks his phone for messages while saying hello to his children. A child comes home from school eager to tell her mother about someone who hurt her feelings during recess, and is met by someone who says all the right things, but can’t pull her eyes away from the computer. The words may say “I care,” but the actions imply something different. And while this may be the furthest thing from the parent’s mind, the message of “I don’t care that much” is clearly and unmistakably received.

Now picture the same conversations with one significant difference. When the parent and child meet, the child sees his father turn off his phone, or her mother turn to look into her eyes, with the clear and understandable message this time of, “I really do care, you are very important to me.”

In any social interaction, there is an overt communication and a covert one -- what is said in words and what is conveyed in more subtle ways. These non-verbal communications are the sub-titles of our dialogues.

It is especially important to pay careful attention to all the messages we send when we are arguing.

It is especially important to pay careful attention to all the messages we send when we are arguing. Our emotional buttons are being pushed. We may feel hurt, defensive, angry, belittled, disregarded, to name just some of the intense emotions evoked. It is a very fragile space. And if the conflict is with someone we love, the emotions are all the more intense, and the risk of hurting and being hurt, much greater.

A 16-year-old boy once told me that several years earlier, in the heat of a terrible confrontation, his father had said to him, “I’m sorry we ever had you. I wish we didn’t.” When I asked the father about these words, he replied that he didn’t remember saying it, but that it was certainly possible because “when I’m angry, watch out.” He seemed surprised that it would bother his son. “Doesn’t he know that it was just said in anger? Of course I don’t mean it.” The boy, however, lived these words every day since they were spoken.

It is possible though, to have a confrontation with our spouse or our children that is assertive, with strong expressed emotion, with each party being passionate about his position, and yet, paradoxically, when concluded there is a greater closeness in the relationship. This too is about the sub-titles. When I argue with my wife, or child, even forcefully, but I am careful about the words I use, and I am careful about not using intimidation, neither physical, nor verbal intimidation, and I am careful to not belittle with my tone of voice or gestures (such as rolling my eyes), and I am also careful to remember the big picture, the importance of the relationship to me, then a whole different translation can be read in the sub-titles.

With this interaction the sub-titles say, “I love you and respect you, and no matter how much I want to win this argument, your feelings matter more to me. Your dignity is sacred to me.”

The secret of relationships is in the sub-titles. Take a closer look at how you're writing them.

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