"Say The Thing" to Revitalize Your Relationship

Explicitly uncomfortable is better than implicitly vague.

Posted May 04, 2020

cottonbro/Pexels
when it comes to intimate relationships, vague communication can be a disaster.
Source: cottonbro/Pexels

We communicate in ways that are multi-faceted, complex, politically correct, and often intended to conform to an “offense free” society.  This might work well when engaging in philosophical, political, or academic discourses, but when it comes to intimate relationships, such ambiguity can be a disaster. During Coronavirus lockdown, ambiguous communication is even more problematic because of already high levels of anxiety, frustration and fear.

What is ambiguous communication?

Communication that is multi-dimensional and overly-complex often functions as a smokescreen and defense mechanism in intimate situations. Simple or one-dimensional communication is clear enough that a 6-year-old can understand it.

Double messaging creates a smokescreen for text and subtext /intent that are not the same. The best example of such double messaging is cynicism. Some other vague smokescreen expressions are: I don’t really know; it’s interesting;  it's complicated; I’ll get back to you; what do you think? I can’t define it in words; and it’s all kind of things.

Why do we communicate obscurely?

People will communicate poorly in their intimate discourses for several reasons.

  • Avoiding mistakes. Ambiguous communication protects you from saying or committing fully to a position of an action, which might be “wrong.”
  • Enabling future denial. Since your message is unclear, you can always state that “that’s not what I meant.”
  • Lowering conflicts. When you speak vaguely, there is less chance of offending someone else.
  • Prevents FOMO. Since you haven’t fully committed, you can always claim you weren’t understood and change your decision or statement.
  • Protection from pain and hurt. The smokescreen allows you to not be too vulnerable so you lower the chances of being hurt.
  •  Buffering of intense intimacy. Vagueness helps maintain a low level of vulnerability, thereby creating a safe distance from your partner.

What are the prices of unclear communication?

Despite any advantages, there are many personal and relational costs to hazy communication.

  • Overly sterile communication. Over-complicating communication often ends up as not saying anything.
  • Forces your partner to mind-read your intentions. In tense relationships, the interpretation will usually be negative (“negative sentiment override”).
  • Exhaustion and boredom. You and your partner waste time trying to read between the lines, often going in circles, instead of moving ahead with your relationship.
  • Stagnation. Movement, passion, and play are stagnated in ambiguous relational dynamics.
  • Lack of vulnerability and intimacy. Because of such blurry communication, there is little honesty or vulnerability.

So what is the solution?

Say The Thing.

In theater improvisation there is a well-known rule called “say the thing”, which means verbalizing the reality of the moment. Whether positive (“I’m so relieved you weren’t insulted by my last comment”) or negative (“I have to admit I stopped listening to you two minutes ago”), you strive to name what is happening right now in the relationship. In psychotherapy these “immediacy skills” of articulating the here-and-now of the moment help deepen the impact of the relationships.

What happens when you say the thing?

  • Your confidence increases. Your conscious and unconscious mind hear you speaking your truth. This increases your self-respect and helps develop a solid sense of self. When “your heart and mouth are one”, you earn a sense of authenticity and congruence. This confidence gives you energy and agency.
  • You grow. By confronting yourself, taking full responsibility for your actions and calling your partner out, you are actually blocking your own exits and confronting blind spots, bad habits and difficult dynamics.
  • You feel more free. Because you are speaking your mind, you will attract to your life people who accept you as you are and with whom you can express yourself freely.
  • Communication becomes easier. Your partner gets a clear picture of where you stand and can stop trying to mind-read you. This results in easier mutual mind mapping.
  • The relationship becomes vital and exciting. As your communication becomes clearer, so will your partner’s reactions: love, anger, insult, and so on. Intense emotional responses in intimate relationships are a sign of vitality and energy. Moreover, when aggression is expressed in a more direct and regulated manner, it actually deepens the relational intimacy.
  • Deeper intimacy and more differentiated relationship. The more you "say the thing," the more your partner will be honest, thereby inviting more honesty, passion, libido, and movement. You become less afraid of ruptures, and you are more willing to initiate repairs.

How to say the thing?

Getting used to "saying the thing" requires time, practice, playfulness, potential state, and courage. You may find that your partner responds in insult, surprise or disappointment (The holy trinity of blocking). The good news is that you can certainly improve your ability to say the thing.

  • Share this article with your partner. Establish a common language and commitment to create an environment where saying the thing is welcome.
  • Reflect. Reflect to see where you learned this pattern of communicating. What do you gain and lose from smokescreens? If the losses are bigger than the gains then perhaps it’s time to try to "say the thing."
  • Block your exits and call yourself out. When you find yourself defaulting to cynicism and other smoke screens, "say the thing" and call yourself out. Admit that you just avoided answering the question because you were embarrassed or surprised
  • Talk in numbers. Instead of giving a vague answer to intimate questions, try answering on a scale of 1 to 10. Talking in numbers is a wonderful way to cut through the smoke screens and raise differentiation.
  • Prepare yourself for ruptures. Expect pushback, ruptures, and other caveman consequences. Choose to believe in Meaningful Endurance - that saying the thing is worth it in the long run, even if in the short run there is more conflict.  Choose to believe that you can repair such ruptures.

Say the thing, together with letting it land and taking full ownership of your shadow, will help you create a solid, vital, playful relationship.

After all, explicitly uncomfortable is better than implicitly vague.

Facebook image: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock

References

Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country's foremost relationship expert. London, UK: Orion.

Hill, C. E., Gelso, C. J., Chui, H., Spangler, P. T., Hummel, A., Huang, T., ... & Gupta, S. (2014). To be or not to be immediate with clients: The use and perceived effects of immediacy in psychodynamic/interpersonal psychotherapy. Psychotherapy Research, 24, 299–315.

Jagodowski, T., Pasquesi, D., & Victor, P. (2015). Improvisation at the speed of life. Chicago, IL: Solo Roma.

Schnarch, D. (2009). Intimacy & desire: Awaken the passion in your relationship. New York, NY: Beaufort.