In The Coupledom Grownups Need To Talk Like Three-Year-Olds

Many years and many blog posts later, I am thinking about the word redundant. Will this next blog post that I am tempted to write be redundant, as in no longer needed or superfluous? Haven’t I published ad nauseam, meaning to a sickening or excessive degree, the topic of communication in the Coupledom? Well, yes I have – in over two hundred posts. And that’s just my writings. The universe is replete in messages about messaging emotions and experiences to each other. And yet…

Hedge maze photo by Rurik [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

       Communication, convoluted like a maze…
Photo Credit: By Rurik [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

This is the hardest piece of the Coupledom puzzle to fit into our lives for some basic reasons – though I must add that from the long view of a forty-year clinical perspective, there has been significant improvement. Couples get that they need to share their feelings. Intellectually they really get it. But still avoidance of communication is often the rule, not the exception, in many Coupledoms. “We hardly have time to talk” is the to-go-to explanation. And not a bad one since often these folks are busy, busy, busy. And then you have the magical thinking defense of time as the solver of all problems beyond easy reach. Yet, it is so much more.

Talking about emotionally meaningful topics with someone who is your life partner, about problems between you (very different than sharing problems about work, in laws, children) takes training and practice. And unless you come from a family where you witnessed that kind of exchange over and over, as you might have watched, say, your mom baking a cake, or your dad mowing the lawn, (this is gender stereotyping I know so…) your dad sewing a ripped seam, and your mom paying the bills (that’s my Coupledom) there is no early osmosis of set skills into your intimacy template. Therefore, you are left to self-teach at a later age, which reminds us of the old dog new tricks stereotype, because now you have the added baggage of life’s unexpected twists. You’re not the sponge you were at five.

At the core of this emotional avoidance dance between individuals in a Coupledom is fear – of revealing vulnerability. It’s really awkward talking about our needs – the shame of it all, the humiliation in showing a need – for understanding, for admiration, for respect, for comfort, even for adoration, reassurance, help. And of course, if history has shown that when you do show a need (or, heaven forbid, a neediness – no way, grow up,) and were slapped down, well, we are delicate creatures, we humans, we learn fast. And if we stepped on a rusty nail once at the bottom of a murky lake, we are likely to stay in the chlorinated pool of life. Blue, smelly, but the bottom is easy to view.

The critical tools of communication about the most intimate of topics, your relationship with your life partner, are rooted in the first stages of language development – the “I need” formation… I thirsty, want juice, I hungry, want cookie, I tired, want a story, want mommy, want daddy, want nana, want ice cream. Then in our maturity, this “I need/want” – now that we can feed ourselves, buy our own ice cream, and download an eBook in a nanosecond, takes a different turn. Yet it remains about hunger. Emotional hunger. What the “I need” now evolves into is deeper, our needs are complex. Society has taught us to hide them, manipulate them, make them look like something else, a slight of hand. However, our language of need still relies on that basic formulation – “I need – you to understand this about me.” It’s not hunger in the old way. It’s hunger in the new way. “I want to understand that about you – whatever your that is. I think sharing my this and your that will bring us closer.” Over and over again – over the lifespan – time is the gift that keeps giving, if used well. It’s mere passage solves nothing.

We humans can identify our needs by starting with the most basic grammatical formulations, I as the subject followed by a verb and then the object of the verb – the as yet unspoken – it could be “I need forgiveness.” “I need help.” “I am longing for…” “I love when…” I am angry when…” Might be “I am frightened because…” “I feel awful when you…” “Something happened to me once ….” “You may not realize it but when you do this, I feel that….”

Early language development and adult intimacy are so linked, it’s shocking. The language of the dodge is what I see in my office. The question, how do you feel, can unfold like the corn maze at a Halloween event. Turn here then there, will we ever get to the exit?  (Scary, and maybe no.) How many ways can we humans use language to deceive ourselves and others, so as not to expose our emotional vulnerability? It’s a learned response, acquired over years, a knee jerk that kicks us in the heart. Now let’s go back, unwrap the bubble paper surrounding our emotions, and lay them out on the table of relationship. Really, we only think we are that fragile. What we do need is simple language tools – the earliest kind. Because I am thirsty for closeness, hungry for being understood, needing to be seen by you, longing to be comforted, tired of playing games and eager to see your face beside my own at bedtime. After all, there could be a boogieman lurking under the bed of our shared life, right. But if we are two, bigger than one, then we are safe. But first I’ll tell you what I’m needing you to know about me; then you can tell me what you’re needing me to know about you. Let’s take turns. It is really a very simple bedtime game.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W, 2018

4 Responses to “In The Coupledom Grownups Need To Talk Like Three-Year-Olds”

  1. Walter Donway

    My wife sent me this column, and, after reading it, I agree that it all needs to be said again and again. A key, as you say, is that becoming an adult to a very large extent means increasingly meeting our own needs. But when it comes to what only others can provide, then meeting our needs means asking. In that sense, we are like children, I suppose, in trying to meet a need by stating it and expecting satisfaction.

    It occurred to me that although there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying “I need,” a possibly more mature (or anyway different) formulation might be to say: “You can give me something very important by …. [doing so and so]. That takes into account that we know other people require motivations to do things.

    Of course, speaking of bed, asking for what you need during love making is the ultimate challenge. The advantage, there, is that there is a built-in reward as we all like to think we can arouse and satisfy a partner.

    As a footnote that I perhaps should not include, “sleight of hand” is pronounced “slight” (I think), but not spelled that way. A slight mistake to be sure.

    • Jill Edelman M.S.W., L.C.S.W

      Thank you Walter. Your ideas always enrich my own and add new ones.

      I love the grammatical correction. Indeed, sleight’s origins are in the word “sly” which is so spot on to describe the verbal hijinks folks tack on to uncomfortable communications, slyly steering the listener away from the meaning.


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