Couples frequently hire me when they are struggling the most. I get engaged for couple therapy when couples have exhausted their own attempts at problem solving and are feeling pretty hopeless. Or I am hired for divorce mediation, when couples are facing the end of their marriage, usually on the heels of some pretty unhappy months or even years.
Many couples will report “lack of communication” as the source of the breakdown. I tend to find this fascinating as I watch them communicate impeccably. The husband has his arms folded, body tilted slightly away from his wife, legs crossed. The wife has her elbow on the arm of the chair, face resting on her hand, body slightly drooped, gaze on her lap.
He is closed off, uninterested, dismissive. She is sad, tired, defeated. All that information and not a word has been spoken.
Communication is inevitable. Your face, your body, your stance, and, of course, your words, all give meaning and context to the person in your presence. No matter how poker faced you may be, you cannot not communicate.
So when couples tell me about their lack of communication, I point out to them just how communicative they are. What I then try to uncover is where the message gets lost in translation. In therapy, we work toward a new language that both people can understand. In mediation, I often become the translator.
Communication functions in two parts: The overt part and the covert part. The overt part is the spoken, clear form of communication. What you are saying: The expression on your face, the position of your body, the direction of your focus. The covert part is the unspoken message. It is the message that lies beneath the words and it often carries the true needs of the communicator.
The overt part of communication gives information to the other person about what you want. It operates as a sort of injunction for the other person to do or not do something. It is direct and clear. Unless it is not.
When people have trouble communicating it is not usually about the overt commands that they give and receive. Problems arise when the covert communication contradicts, undermines, or otherwise gets lost in the overt message.
Let’s take an example that has become clichéd in marriages at this point. The dishwasher! For the sake of this example, I will assume that there is one person who more regularly unloads the dishwasher and, also for the sake of this example, I will assume it is the wife. Regardless of any change in that scenario, the example holds true. On occasion, the husband will undertake the task of unloading the dishwasher. Typically, he will announce this fact to the wife who will clearly and overtly remind him that she unloads the dishwasher every single day.
The overt message from him is that he performed a task and would like recognition. The wife’s overt response is something like, “you have to be kidding me!” But how about the covert message?
Chances are the husband is saying a couple of things, none of which was received. The first is something like, “I really would like to feel appreciated so could you please acknowledge my effort?” And the second might be something along the lines of “I see how hard you work around the house and I want to help out a little.”
Similarly, the wife sent her covert message that was lost in transit. Hers was probably something along the lines of “I, too, would like a little appreciation” or “I don’t want you to unload the dishwasher for me. I want you to want to unload the dishwasher.” An impossible feat, to say the least.
These misunderstood covert, or unspoken, messages often represent what we actually want the other person to hear. They represent the meat of our communication and give information to the other person about what we actually need. This is not exclusive to couples, but can also appear between a boss and employee, adults and children, and any other close or intimate relationship.
Look at the family dinner table. A child is encouraged throughout the day to share his day’s events. Many of those inquiries garner little result, and parents continue to make this request. Finally, dinner rolls around. As the parents engage each other in conversation about some topic or situation, the child chimes in with an event in his day that he wants to share. The parents respond to him that they are talking and he needs to wait. See the dilemma?
The overt message to the child is that he should share his life. The covert message is that it really isn’t that important. This leaves the child confused at best, and unappreciated at worst. This also leaves the parents unclear about why their child does not share.
This scenario repeats in a variety of ways, in a plethora of relationships. Some are obvious. The boss who requires constant updates on the employees’ work, but is too busy to pay attention. The wife who shares intimate thoughts through text or email, but does not engage the same way in person.
Others are not so clear: The young child who throws a tantrum before school each morning. Overtly, the young child is saying that she doesn’t want to go to school. Covertly, and more meaningfully, is her message that maybe she’s worried about the parent who is home alone all day. Or maybe her tantrums are the only time the parents work together.
Or maybe the messages come from the teenager who almost always sides with his father during parental conflicts. The teenager might be taking sides to protect a parent he sees as more vulnerable and less able to protect himself. Overtly he might be saying to the mother that she is wrong in this particular instance. Covertly, he might be sending a message that it isn’t about right or wrong, but dad needs help.
These dual messages are abundant in our everyday communication. We communicate two things at once, but are really only intentional about our spoken messages. If we put a little more intention and gave a little more attention into what we, or the person with whom we are communicating, actually want or really truly need, the chasm between these spoken and unspoken messages may grow smaller. With a connection between our overt statements and our covert desires, we may just find that we get our needs met and some of those “communication” problems aren’t really problems at all.
Carrie Rosenbloom is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and attorney mediator in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She specializes in helping individuals and families navigate the complexities of divorce. Carrie also works with family businesses, helping them manage transitions, create succession plans, resolve conflict, and integrate a cohesive culture throughout family owned businesses. More information can…
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