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By Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT

Couple talking in restaurantI love you. Certainly a common phrase used in relationships. But, does it mean the same thing to everyone who delivers and receives it? In the 1970’s, it was Gregory Bateson who taught us about meta-communication, the idea that communication is so much more than just the words we speak [1]. We all communicate with each other all the time, even if we don’t ever utter a single word.

Now, let’s go back to I love you. Here are a couple of scenarios to consider:

  • Joe and Tina have been married for 10 years. Tina often tells Joe that she loves him. She tells him before they go to bed and when they are both leaving for work. She tells him when they hang up the phone from each other and via emails and texts. But when Tina and Joe are together, Tina rarely has any interaction with Joe. She spends most of her time on her phone texting or making calls and often spends time alone in her favorite room in their house. When Joe tries to hug or kiss Tina, she often acts as though she is inconvenienced by this interaction and will effortlessly hug or kiss him back so that she can quickly go back to what she was previously doing.
  • Now, think about Elizabeth and Ben. They have also been married for 10 years.  Ben tells Elizabeth that he loves her often. Just like Tina and Joe, before bed, when they’re leaving for work, before hanging up the phone, and via emails and text messages. But when they are home together, Elizabeth and Ben hold hands often and talk to each other about work and personal things. They often laugh together and enjoy working on projects in their home as a team.

Although both couples use the same phrase at the same frequency and in the same situations, do you think it means the same for both couples? What is the meta-communication that is happening during these interactions? Obviously, with Tina and Joe, the message and meta-message are not the same. What Tina is saying to Joe with her words does not match what Tina is saying to him with her actions. But, Elizabeth is receiving the physical messages the same way that she is receiving the verbal messages Ben is sending.  So, what does all of this mean? This means that while we understand the importance of communicating with one another, we really need to understand that the ways in which we communicate are much better received when all of the modes we use are aligned. If we experience more relationships with communication similar to Tina and Joe’s, we find ourselves confused and frustrated. Imagine where that can take a relationship.

It’s easy to see how relationships can be greatly impacted by the contradicting messages being conveyed within. It’s also easy to see why some couples will say in therapy that they are not communicating well with each other, when it may appear on the outside that they are communicating just fine. But, when a therapist watches the body language and pairs it with the words spoken, the disconnect may become more apparent.

Now what do we do with this information? While it is much easier said than done, I think it’s important that we slow down and spend more time thinking about how and what we are trying to communicate with others. While there is still a possibility for some conflictual communication, being more cognizant of both messages and meta-messages may help relationships to be a little less confusing. And, couldn’t we all use a little less confusion in our lives?

References

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

This post was written by Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT, social media and webinar coordination specialist for OneOp. OneOp aims to support the development of professionals working with military families.  Find out more about OneOp Family Development concentration on our Facebook and Twitter.

Blog Image: Photo from Flickr [Talk by Karsten Bitter, September 11, 2011, CC BY-ND 2.0]