Every marriage, every relationship, has its hidden language. From subtle movements of the eyes to a touch or squeeze of the hand, we are always sending out signals. Even the words we say can have deeper meanings. Anyone who’s ever asked their significant other how they are and been met with a chilly “Fine” knows that. Understanding and responding to these unspoken cues is known as meta conversation. And mastering that language is essential to a happy marriage.
In the Greek word “meta,” which means ‘after’ or “beyond.” In English, we use the prefix to mean ‘something is about itself.’ “In other words, when we say meta communication, we mean looking beyond what we see on the surface, and have a discussion about how we communicate,” explains Dr. Kevin Skinner, a Utah-based marriage and family therapist. “More simply, it is communication about communication.”
When done right, these meta-conversations can actually increase intimacy and help couples to better interpret what the other is saying, whether it’s during an argument or even in just a basic conversation about how each other’s day went.
“The old adage is intimacy is actually ‘Into Me You See,’ and that’s so hit the public nerve there’s even a pop song by Katy Perry about it,” says Kim Leatherdale, a New Jersey therapist and the author of You Own It. Now Grow It! and Accused of Cheating & You’re Not!. “Sharing the meta is a great way to open the door into the experience one spouse is having so the other spouse can enter.”
“We want to feel connected, accepted, and a sense of belonging, primarily from each other. Addressing this goal with one another can really smooth out some of our meta-communications.”
So how does one enter into the “meta” phase when having a conversation with a spouse?
Dr. Skinner says that the first step is going into any conversation with a shared goal. “Through Dr. Sue Johnson’s work, we know that we, as human beings, are bonding animals,” he says. “Which tells us something about ourselves and our partners. That is, that at the core, we both want to feel connected, accepted, and have a sense of belonging. And, we want to feel connected, accepted, and a sense of belonging, primarily from each other. Addressing this goal with one another can really smooth out some of our meta-communications.”
Additionally, Skinner says, it’s important for partners as individuals to get to the root of how we communicate and why. “For example,” he says, “a husband might get prickly with and turn a cold shoulder to his partner after they ask him to take out the garbage.” Without some awareness, Skinner says, he might just blame them for being ‘nagging.’ On a second look, however, he can maybe identify that in his childhood chores were demanded and he felt rejected and belittled by his parents when he forgot to do them. “As he comes to understand this dynamic,” Skinner says. “he can better communicate later with his partner about his experiences and responses, explaining to her that his communication came from a place of hurt.”
When we have a deep desire to see from the other person’s perspective, we become more curious and fascinated by how they communicate and why.
Once we have honed our own sense of communication, we can turn our attention to our partner and try and better understand the rhythms of their communication. “When we have a deep desire to see from the other person’s perspective, we become more curious and fascinated by how they communicate and why,” says Skinner. “So, when our partner may lash out at us unexpectedly, we might slow our own response down and be able to better see what is going on in the dynamic from our partners perspective.”
Sometimes, for a married couple that has been together for a long time, it can be more of a challenge to peel back the layers of conversation and get to the heart of what’s being said.
“A couple that’s been together for a long time can just be operating without really being aware of the patterns of communication,” says Calvin Black, a private practice therapist from Vancouver, BC. “I do some work with premarital couples, so they haven’t been together that long, and they’re really interested in some of the ways that they’re speaking to each other and how to communicate well. And, in a sense, they’re doing kind of a deeper dive into ‘What’s our style of communication,’ or ‘What is good communication like?’”
However, for all the benefits meta-communication offers, there are times it can be handled poorly. Dr. Skinner says that can happen when we allow our emotions to overwhelm us and respond from a place of hurt, as opposed to thinking our feelings through and speaking constructively.
Sharing our deep feelings and our communication in response to those feelings really help our partner see where we are coming from and why we have behaved the way we have behaved.
“When we try to talk about communication by merely talking about what the other person is doing wrong or what the other person could do better, without sharing openly about our own communication style or the how the other person is influencing us and why, we can really get stuck,” he says.
Skinner goes on to say that, when confronted by those challenging emotions, try and get to the root of the issue first, even if that means going back to childhood. For example, a wife who is angry that her husband doesn’t help out with the housework should ask herself why that is. Maybe her own parents had a distant relationship and cleaning the house alone brings up those feelings of distance. If she can calmly and rationally explain that to her husband, it can to a long way towards making the relationship better.
“Ultimately sharing our deep feelings and our communication in response to those feelings really help our partner see where we are coming from and why we have behaved the way we have behaved,” says Skinner. “Then we can talk about how we’d like to communicate in the future.”
In marriage, this concept means basically the same thing, but it may feel more complex emotionally than in other contexts. In working to have better closeness in marriage, we are going to want to talk about how we talk to each other. We’ll also talk with one another about where our communication styles comes from and how we’re feeling when we communicate that way. How meta is that?