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The Sub-Titles of our Relationships

The Sub-Titles of our Relationships

Sometimes what's not being said speaks the loudest.


We all know that when we converse with others, the communication is not limited to the spoken word. We communicate so much more non-verbally. Our tone of voice, facial expressions, eye contact, even posture, all lend depth to the words. They say a lot about our sincerity and our feelings about whatever the subject matter might be, and express even more about the quality of the relationship that exists between the two speakers.

A father comes home from work and checks his phone for messages while saying hello to his children. A child comes home from school eager to tell her mother about someone who hurt her feelings during recess, and is met by someone who says all the right things, but can’t pull her eyes away from the computer. The words may say “I care,” but the actions imply something different. And while this may be the furthest thing from the parent’s mind, the message of “I don’t care that much” is clearly and unmistakably received.

Now picture the same conversations with one significant difference. When the parent and child meet, the child sees his father turn off his phone, or her mother turn to look into her eyes, with the clear and understandable message this time of, “I really do care, you are very important to me.”

In any social interaction, there is an overt communication and a covert one -- what is said in words and what is conveyed in more subtle ways. These non-verbal communications are the sub-titles of our dialogues.

It is especially important to pay careful attention to all the messages we send when we are arguing.

It is especially important to pay careful attention to all the messages we send when we are arguing. Our emotional buttons are being pushed. We may feel hurt, defensive, angry, belittled, disregarded, to name just some of the intense emotions evoked. It is a very fragile space. And if the conflict is with someone we love, the emotions are all the more intense, and the risk of hurting and being hurt, much greater.

A 16-year-old boy once told me that several years earlier, in the heat of a terrible confrontation, his father had said to him, “I’m sorry we ever had you. I wish we didn’t.” When I asked the father about these words, he replied that he didn’t remember saying it, but that it was certainly possible because “when I’m angry, watch out.” He seemed surprised that it would bother his son. “Doesn’t he know that it was just said in anger? Of course I don’t mean it.” The boy, however, lived these words every day since they were spoken.

It is possible though, to have a confrontation with our spouse or our children that is assertive, with strong expressed emotion, with each party being passionate about his position, and yet, paradoxically, when concluded there is a greater closeness in the relationship. This too is about the sub-titles. When I argue with my wife, or child, even forcefully, but I am careful about the words I use, and I am careful about not using intimidation, neither physical, nor verbal intimidation, and I am careful to not belittle with my tone of voice or gestures (such as rolling my eyes), and I am also careful to remember the big picture, the importance of the relationship to me, then a whole different translation can be read in the sub-titles.

With this interaction the sub-titles say, “I love you and respect you, and no matter how much I want to win this argument, your feelings matter more to me. Your dignity is sacred to me.”

The secret of relationships is in the sub-titles. Take a closer look at how you're writing them.

December 26, 2009

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 11

(11) Anonymous, January 5, 2011 2:59 PM

How Do I Get My Husband of 37 Years to Change

YOur article on the subtext of relationships meant alot to me. I have gotten nowhere, even using therapists, to have my husband change his beahviour from within. He defends his leaving the room when I speak, his eye-rolling, his rudeness, and his non-inclusion of me in decision making, as my being sensitive. Our youngest is marrying in April BH which leaves our 23 year old at home. He is not a G-d fearing man at all; and I would like to think that emuna and bitachon guide my life. But I have been unhappy for years. He is now in therapy taking everything very seriously as he got into trouble with the hospital for his anger and haughty reaction to the staff. I fear he is going through the motions just to retain his job. HELP!!

(10) SusanE, January 2, 2010 2:50 PM

You can Usually Trust the Non-Verbal communication

Thank you for an important lesson, Rabbi Lob. Watching someones face to understand their feelings or comments is usually more important than what they are saying. Politicians are very well coached on how to put the correct gestures with the words. Many criminals can lie effectively, so can some regular people. Many attornies and Judges are adept at reading people. They've mastered the art of non verbal communication, and they are very good at it. Here is a link to an article about this subject. - - This subject is also part of Malcom Gladwell's book "Blink". I have started studying this, it is fascinating. There are many sites on the internet about it. Thanks for giving us a heads up about the real conversation that is NOT being said aloud.

(9) Galina, January 1, 2010 10:23 PM

Source of my pain

Growing up my mother was very abusive. She still speaks like this to me. Her way of communicating is just like the father in this article, who cleims "I don't rmemeber saying that, but my kids should know I don't mean it" nonsence. LIARS, all of them. They will say anything to destroy innocent people around them to win an argument or just make sure they intimidate another. These types of parents are mean, narcisitic egotists and beyond selfish. They lash out at their innocent children in hurtful ways and its not acceptable. Not everything is forgiveable.

(8) Brownie Jr., December 31, 2009 5:23 PM

non-verbal sub-titles

im a really big fan of yours, Dr. Lob, and this article is awesome! i think i may have the guy who i will marry read it. it may even prevent us from making some of the many mistakes that my parents made. Thanx for everything!

(7) Anonymous, December 30, 2009 9:45 AM

Bring it on !

Realised this week that communication is an area i want to focus on in all my relationships - this article is great at creating awareness.... any books or tools on "how to" communicate more effectively ?

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