Words are dangerous, it’s time to connect.
Communication has been sold as the golden ticket to a healthy relationship, but it’s not enough.
Studio 5 Marriage & Family Contributor Dr. Liz Hale explains why connection matters more.
Why Words are Dangerous, and How to Work on Connection
Relationships are the ultimate growth promoters. Relationships push us and stretch us to become wiser and more well-rounded human beings…if we embrace that challenge and not fight against it.
ACCENTUATE CONNECTION OVER COMMUNICATION
Communication has been sold as the golden ticket to a healthy relationship but it’s not enough. What matters more? Connection: Creating feelings of SAFETY & SECURITY down to our core.
There has often been this long-held belief that we need to talk more in order to connect more. But words often get in the way.
I am not a fan of words. Talking is the most dangerous thing we do in our relationships. Most common mistakes we make with words? We either speak too many words or we speak hurtful words. Both lead to disconnection.
Most relationship issues are problems of connection, not communication. We may argue about the dishes, but we really want to know is, “Do I matter to you? Do you love me? Am I a priority to you?”
LEARN THE LANGUAGE OF THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
Words and verbal communication can be mildly irritating to the nervous system. Most of our human connection (90%) is nonverbal and nonconscious.
Language is subjective. You must interpret it to understand what it means. We have these continual disagreements in our relationship about what we’re talking about which then gets translated into different memories, recollections, and perspectives. How many times have you wished a certain conversation had been recorded because whatever Benny says happened is NOT what happened!
The nervous system pays attention to proximity. How close are we when watching tv; having dinner; walking in the park. Being a little bit closer sends a message to the nervous system that says, “we’re partners, friends, and lovers.” It’s a subconscious message but it matters.
The nervous system pays attention to touch. As we touch more, obviously appropriate touch and touch that is desired and consent-based, we communicate directly to the nervous system, “I’m here for you; I care about you; I support you.” Holding hands; putting your arm around your partner; placing your hand on your partner’s arm. Any opportunity for touch subconsciously communicates connection.
The nervous system pays attention to vocal tone. Many times we’ll say, “I can’t change my tone; it just is what it is.” Go to acting school – actors learn how to change their tone and facial expression intentionally to produce an effect. Instead of sounding loud, or aggressive or threatening we can learn to practice modulation of our tone and can sound sweet and more available.
The nervous system pays attention to eye contact. And we don’t make enough eye contact. The eyes communicate so much but our eye contact is not nearly long enough.
The nervous system pays attention to speed of response. How long does it take you to respond to someone when they seek your attention? If I’m checking my email and it takes 5 seconds for me to look up, that sends a signal that what I’m working on is more important than my partner. It’s a subtle signal that registers.
STRENGTHEN THE PROCESS NOT THE CONTENT
The way we talk is more important than what we talk about. Resolving problems does not make our relationship secure. What does make a relationship secure is how I express concern for you even in the middle of a difficult conversation. Pay attention to the process. The moment matters. The interaction matters.
If my partner looks stressed, annoyed, or frustrated why am I still going on and on about it? Why do I insist on barreling right through?
What do I see going on with my partner? How do they look like they’re doing?
How loud am I talking? Are my eyes soft or stern?
Connect first and communicate second.
Sometimes it’s a smile, a friendly face, a hug, or sweet words such as, “Come here, I love you!” Or, “I appreciate you so much!” “Remember; I’m on your side!”
CONVERSE USING “WE” VERSUS “ME”
In our relationships we function as a unit – as a team. Sometimes we get caught up in the “I statements” we’ve all been taught to use, i.e., “I feel hurt/angry/sad/anxious.” While “I statements” can be a healthy expression of individuality, they can also set us up to be on opposing sides of the debate team. Consider discussing concerns in terms of “we.” “Why is this hard for us?” “What do we want to have happen?” How can we get better at this?” “What are we needing more of?”
Instead of just saying, “I’m having a hard time here,” try adding team-talk that includes “We,” such as; “We need to pause for a minute here and help me because I’m struggling.”
PRACTICE & RESHAPE RELATIONSHIP HABITS
Our relationship behavior is largely automatic. Retraining these wired-in habits takes practice, not just more conversations about our issues. A strong relationship is more about skill than compatibility.
Without the stress, fatigue and hunger, let’s try a re-do on a difficult conversation. Nothing is ever wasted; let’s learn from what goes well and from what doesn’t go well. This is really fun to do and it is healing to have a second chance at a tough exchange. We must practice!
In marriage therapy, I often ask a couple to replay an argument in my office so that we can find the precursors of an argument. What I notice most, as these humble couples revisit their debacles, is that they were often multi-tasking when they were talking – they were not focused enough on the present moment to attune to their partner or provide care and safety. That is an easy fix and a great place to start. “I don’t think we did that very well. Would you practice with me so that we can get better at that so we can love each other more?”
Double-down on care and vulnerability. It’s the only strategy that works!
Kids need this too. Less formal conversation. Less talk about chores and responsibility. More holding. More emotional intimacy. More quiet moments where there is just space to be and feel together. This is what the nervous system thrives on in order to feel connected.
Additional resource: “More Than Words,” by John Howard, LMFT