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How We Communicate As Children Affects How We Express Ourselves As Adults

How we communicate and children affects how we express ourselves as adults

How we communicate as children greatly affects how we express ourselves to the ones we love as adults.

As a couples therapist, I always have conversations with both partners before taking them on as new clients. We talk about how the couple is struggling and how I might be helpful to their relationship. Most often I’m told some variation of this, “We just need help learning how to communicate.” Reaching adulthood does not mean we’ve mastered communication. How we communicate as children greatly affects how we express ourselves to the ones we love as adults. Exploring our childhood communication patterns is part of the work I do in couple therapy.

About 80% of couples seeking therapy identify their conflict as a communication problem. A lot of couples come to therapy thinking that if they just straighten out the language they use with each other they will be able to find the intimacy that they are longing for. And even more importantly, stop the negative cycle of blaming and arguing about issues that have no major significance.

Some of these couples have already been through some form of communication training. The techniques taught in communication training can be useful.  They can actually set the framework for what healthy communication should look like. But there is much more to healthy communication in a love relationship than can be taught in a communication seminar. And communication problems are not a quick fix in couples or individual therapy.

What communication style was modeled for you?

How we communicate is connected to who we are as human beings. How secure we are. And of course what has been modeled for us in our most important relationships. We bring all of ourselves to another person as we try to express how we are feeling about our relationship with him or her. Human beings are very perceptive about whether a partner is moving toward them or away from them as they are trying to express what they are thinking or feeling.

There is a complexity about how to communicate with the people that we love. Are we communicating in a way that is non-defensive, validating, compassionate and expressive of our deepest needs and desires?

What’s at stake when you communicate to the person you love?

How we communicate reveals the truth of who we are as seekers of intimate connection. Expressing the truth of our needs and desires to the person that we love requires great security and courage. The fear of being rejected by our primary love partner creates more pain and fear than with any other relationship that we have in our lives.

Much is at stake when we communicate to the person that we love. Much more so than in any other relationship. We may be great communicators in business, as educators, or as artists. Those same great communicators tend to be stressed and limited when trying to talk with a husband or wife. There is so much at stake in having our communication understood in this primary love relationship. We have deep needs to be seen, valued and loved by the person we love. Losing this relationship costs us emotional, financial and of course relational damage.

Communication is not one-size-fits-all

How we communicate is different for each of us. We come into the world pre-wired to communicate in a particular way. We each have propensities and proclivities in the way we express ourselves that has to do with the way we individually think and feel and what motivates us.

Most parents agree that their children come into the world with very different personalities. Some are loud and some are quiet. There are those who want to rearrange the room, be left alone, or desire cooperative play. Some are extremely sensitive to loud noises or adapting to unique situations. Others seem to adapt easily and are inquisitive learners. These differences create challenges in the way parents communicate with the personalities and temperaments of their children. Each being very different.

How parents learn to be sensitive to the individual way that each of their children relate to other human beings, and their environment, has a lot to do with how that child will develop confidence and capacity to communicate.

How are your emotional signals received?

Parents help their children learn to communicate by being interested in what their emotional signals are trying to communicate. Our emotions precede our capacity to form words. They are the only way we can get the attention of our parents to let them know when we are happy, sad or hungry. How the child’s emotional signals are sent or received are the foundation for communication later in life.

We never stop paying attention to these emotional signals. Even in adult life. We may be saying one thing, but our voice tone and our facial expression is saying something else. And guess what? We tend to pay more attention to voice tone and facial expression then to the actual words communicated. It is very difficult to authentically communicate without our voice tone or our facial expression giving us away.

Our bodies know the truth

Yes, therapists can teach couples what to say. But partners will not accept this at face value. What is said in words is not enough to communicate how we feel and think about each other. Our bodies know when we are not telling others the truth about what we actually think and feel. That is why lie detector tests have a high degree of validity. And if we are with a person for long enough, we learn to notice whether or not we are being told the truth.

Being told the truth has everything to do with the foundation of trust that intimate communication is based upon. There is nothing more vulnerable than opening ourselves up to love and to be loved by another person. Love is the oxygen that keeps us alive. Without loving and being loved, infants die and wither. Adults lose motivation and sink into depression and despair.

Will you be loved or rejected?

Stage fright is a common problem that most people struggle with at one time or another. It pales in comparison with the fear we have of being rejected by the person we love. Even if our love for them is a struggle, once we attach, we have difficulty knowing how we will get by in the world if that person is not by our side.

The confidence that we will be loved, or rejected, by the person we love is created in our first years of life. It follows us into our adult love relationships. Young children must be mirrored and validated. If not, they will develop an insecure, avoidant or disorganized attachment style that causing them to be anxious, pull away, or have a chaotic experience in the presence of others.

How we communicate with the person or persons we love has so much to do with how we were listened to and spoken to in our families of origin. Stan Tatkin, Sue Johnson and our book Emotional Connection document how these problems with attachment are played out in adult love relationships.

How can therapy create, or restore trust in couples?

The work of couples therapy is to create trust and a secure bond between the couple. That bond will allow them to freely express to each other what they are authentically feeling. This requires going below the surface to the deepest relationship hurts and fears that we each carry. With trust and a secure bond established they can say things without triggering an angry or rejecting reaction.

The goal of emotionally focused couples therapy Is to create a corrective emotional experience. By having the courage to say what you need, even though you fear rejection, you create the opportunity to be healed by the love and understanding that your partner returns to you. It’s impossible for your partner to love and validate your deepest fears and needs unless he/she knows what they are. And if you don’t express them, you’ll never know whether you can be cared for when your partner discovers what they are.

Can we ignore our trauma?

This is especially true when we have had traumatic experiences that we are ashamed of. Or afraid to express. Trauma does not heal unless it is talked about, validated and understood. Period. Exclamation point. There is no one that we want to understand our trauma more than the person we are in a relationship with. Learning how to feel secure with each other’s emotions, even if they are difficult, create our greatest opportunity for emotional healing.

There are times when trauma wounds are so raw that one member of the couple will dissociate. In a sense they leave their body while their partner is talking to them. Unfortunately, this can look like the person isn’t paying attention. Or is being rejecting while the partner is trying to communicate to him or her. When there is dissociation happening, it is especially important to have a therapist validate what is happening. The therapist helps the partner understand and support the fear that is motivating the dissociation.

Individual therapy also provides safety and very focused techniques for the healing of emotional trauma. Oftentimes these trauma injuries require specialized individual therapy. EMDR or AEDP may be required for healing.

Communication defines us, sustains us and promotes our growth.

We all communicate in different ways. But we can learn how to understand and form an intimate connection with a partner who is very different than we are. If it seems like your communication problem is not a quick fix, don’t be discouraged. Communication is what defines us, sustains us and promotes our growth. It is extremely nuanced. Communication is, in a sense, a schematic of every relationship we have had throughout our lifetime. Learning how to communicate with love, compassion, support, and acceptance is not a hat-trick. It is the masterpiece we paint throughout a lifetime.

I’m Michael W. Regier, Ph.D. For 30+ years I’ve helped individuals and couples learn how to communicate in relationship. Along with my wife Paula, I’ve co-authored Emotional Connection: The Story & Science of Preventing Conflict & Creating Lifetime Love.


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