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Overly Structured Communication

At times, we all experience challenges that lead us to rely more heavily on Nurture, Play, or Structure.  When we prioritize one of these above the other two or when we negate one for the others we lose our sense of balance. How we think about and express ourselves, as well as how we think about or express our opinions of others, can indicate what areas of our lives may need attention, or to be brought back into balance.  Because language is crucial to understanding our sense of balance, and in understanding those we are in relationship with, the words we choose can be a clue to knowing where we have negated or prioritized Nurture, Play, or Structure in our lives.  

When we find ourselves out of balance, there are several ways we can recognize this in our language.  First, we tend to express things in the extreme. Second, we express our emotions outwardly, directing our feelings onto the actions of others.  Third, we often unknowingly relinquish our choices to others, externalizing our own needs, wants, and desires to the direction of others.  

Let’s consider a couple who are struggling with communication.  Mike and Laura have been married for 13 years. They have built a life together and are raising two elementary school aged children.  Both Mike and Laura express love for one another, but find it difficult to understand one another and share that they often argue about chores, bills, and parenting.  Despite their efforts to connect, they both report the experience of drifting apart.  

When they come in for counseling, their language immediately draws attention to the imbalance in their relationship.  In their conversation we hear clear examples of when emotional language is used in the extreme. Words like always, never, should, supposed to, have to, etc. let us know that they are hiding emotional needs within structural language.    Laura shares that Mike never does the dishes or laundry.  Mike replies that he did the dishes two times the previous week.  Likewise, Mike reports that Laura should be better at disciplining the children.  Laura argues that she does discipline the children and that Mike doesn't discipline like he is supposed to.  The language both Mike and Laura are using indicates that they are out of balance, and that their relationship has become anxious.  

Has Mike really never done the dishes?  Of course he has. But, in sharing her feelings, Laura speaks in the extreme.  We do this when we find it safer emotionally to name something structural than to say what we need emotionally.  In relationship counseling, we refer to this as “keeping score.” At times if feels safer to keep track of what a partner is doing, even in the extreme, rather than naming what is missing in the areas of nurture or play.  Perhaps Laura is feeling overwhelmed with work and home responsibilities. She may be asking Mike for nurture, to demonstrate that he supports her. If Laura continues to speak in the extreme, pointing out structural things that are not being done, Mike may never know what it is she really needs.  

Likewise, we hear Mike using language of guilt, blame, and shame.  Mike states that Laura should be better at parenting.  Shoulds are anxiety producing and anxiety avoiding.  First, we must understand that shoulds are socially and experientially created rules of behavior.  Depending where you grew up, you may have a belief that you should open the door for others, say please and thank you, or talk to the person standing next to you in the grocery check-out line.  Others may believe the opposite to be true. For most of us, these beliefs about what is correct or incorrect behavior emerged from observing our families when we were younger, what were taught in school, and the experiences we have as we age.  The issue with shoulds is that we tend to treat them as if they were universal; a moral truth that everyone understands. Thus, when we say that someone else should or should not be doing something, we are making a moral judgement on them, whether we realize it or not.  In this example Mike is not only criticizing Laura’s behavior, he is unknowingly making a moral judgment against Laura.  Instead of naming what he is missing in the areas of nurture or play, he is also keeping score. His fear of naming his needs is apparent by the use of shoulds.  Mike is, in reality, causing more of the drifting that has already taken part in his marriage.   

As we have seen, both Mike and Laura are expressing anxious and imbalanced language.  In doing so, they are displaying the anxiety in their marriage. Relationships that are anxious indicate some emotional fear within the couple.  And, in this example, we observe a couple where emotional trust has been broken. Laura does not feel emotionally safe to ask for help. Mike does not feel emotionally safe to have an honest conversation about parenting.  Instead, each has taken on the practice of externalizing their emotions. They have relied on a crutch of structure (shoulds, have to’s, always, never, etc.) to blame the other, instead of expressing their individual needs.  

When we are in balance, attending to nurture, play and structure, we feel safer to be vulnerable.  We feel more confident to ask for what we need. Because of their imbalance, Mike and Laura hide their vulnerabilities.  In doing so, they externalize their emotions onto one another. And, when this happens, their needs are not addressed.  

When Mike and Laura externalize their emotions onto one another, they subjugate their own needs without realizing it.  They begin to react to the other’s demands and accusations. Over time, this has led to the drifting they are experiencing in their marriage.  As we have seen, instead of saying “I need help”, both Mike and Laura have accused each other of “not helping.” Instead of saying, “I want to talk about how we parent,” they have finger-pointed and called one another a “bad parent”.  When we speak about the experience of another, and not from our own experience, we are clearly out of balance. We know this to be true, because when one is confident in themselves and their own feelings, one is confident to name what they experience and what they need.  

It is important for all of us to pay careful attention to the language of balance.   If we find ourselves speaking of those in our lives in the extreme, we are out of balance.  If we find that someone is speaking of us in the extreme or hyper-focusing on one issue, we can recognize this as a need.  Although this is challenging, because extreming language often feels like an accusation or finger-pointing, when we can recognize this as structural language, we are more likely to recognize the need to address Nurture or Play within ourselves or those we are in relationship with.  When we are able to do this, we find that we are able to improve communication, attend to unmet nurture needs, and grow stronger and healthier relationships.

Phillip Bass, MDiv, ThM, MA, LPCMHC, NCC,

Licensed Qualified Supervisor

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