When we speak to another person, they receive two messages. One of the messages is sent in the words we have spoken. The other is in the way the message is delivered. The latter is often the clearest reflection of what is really going on inside of us.
We may snap at someone because we are upset with someone else. The message received by the one at whom we snapped is that we are unhappy with him or her. A partner may try to engage us in a serious conversation, but if we are holding some resentment towards that person, our body language or sarcastic tone will indicate that something is wrong. The problem is that our partner may be confused, thinking our issue is with the subject under discussion.
Ideally, communication is most effective when there is congruence between our words and our nonverbal cues. One aspect of maturity is taking care of our internal emotional environment, so it does not spill over onto others who have nothing to do with it.
When we are having issues with another, we must first consider whether the problem belongs with us, or with the other. We may be sad when our teenager would rather spend Saturday night with friends than with family. However, it is likely our problem-our reluctance to accept her development of a life separate from ours-and not something we can lay on her.
If we are snarky when we say goodbye as she leaves, we only succeed in delivering a guilt trip, and she will resent us for that. Far better to own up to our sadness that she is growing up, but to send her off with lots of love.
In order to prevent non-verbal messages from sabotaging our relationships we must first be clear with ourselves about what is going on. Then, we must strive to communicate clearly and directly to others, so there is at least an opportunity to deal openly with whatever we are feeling.
Another pitfall is expecting another to know how we feel. We may think it should be obvious to the other that they have said or done something to upset us. Then there is anger for the incident, and now anger that they did not realize how their words or actions affected us.
A variation of this theme is, “If you really loved me you would know.” This puts the other person in an impossible place. Our logic is that since they didn’t know, it proves they don’t love us! Other than reaffirming their love, how does one deal with this? Now that person is offended at the suggestion that they don’t love you when they really do. Although perhaps it is not conscious, this is quite a manipulative stance to take.
This is an inner child reaction, much as the young child might assert that mommy doesn’t love me because she wouldn’t give me what I want. If we have not healed our inner child issues, we will project them onto our partner. But that is another column.
(see my MP3 on Codependency and Projection.)