“We’re not communicating.”

The woman on the phone thinks she has told me why she and her husband of only a year want to come in for therapy.

“Does your husband agree?” I ask.

“He thinks we’re communicating just fine. He says I’m too demanding.”

We make an appointment for the following week. After we hang up, I muse about how very common her complaint has become. I’ve probably heard that phrase at least 800 times in the last 20 years. “We’re not communicating.” Common as it is, it isn’t a helpful way to think about what is going wrong in a couple’s best efforts to be together.

The truth is that people communicate all the time. It’s not possible to avoid it. Social creatures that we are, we are always sending out signals that others read, interpret, and respond to while we are reading, interpreting and responding to theirs. When two people who want to be close to each other instead find themselves in constant turmoil, it is not because they aren’t communicating. In fact, they are probably communicating far too much in their frantic efforts to try to get through to each other. The issue is that they aren’t understanding each other’s code.

We all know how personal codes work. Ask someone how she is. She responds, “Fine.” If said simply, we take it to mean that she really is fine or at least fine enough or maybe that she doesn’t think you’re the person to tell how she’s really doing these days. It doesn’t require a response and we both just move on. It’s the kind of exchange we do all the time. It just keeps the social wheels moving.

But imagine the interchange happening between a young couple at the end of a long and tiring workday.

“How was your day?” he asks. “Fine,” she says with a shrug and a sigh.

What happens next is critical to the growth and stability of the couple.

If the guy accepts the “fine” at face value and moves on, she’s likely to be hurt. She may even accuse him of not listening to her and not loving her enough. If he is tired himself and was only responding to the ordinary social exchange, he will feel unjustly accused and may protest his innocence – which will only make her mad enough to say some version of, “you’re not listening” or “you just never understand.” The ordinary question, “How was your day?” escalates into a fight with both members of the couple eventually pouting in their respective corners, each feeling right but also misunderstood and disconnected.

This is what’s called “metacommunication” in action. In the early 1970s, Gregory Bateson coined the term to describe the underlying messages in what we say and do. Metacommunication is all the nonverbal cues (tone of voice, body language, gestures, facial expression, etc.) that carry meaning that either enhance or disallow what we say in words. There’s a whole conversation going on beneath the surface.

In the case of our young couple: her “fine” with a shrug and a sigh is code for “I’ve had a miserable day. I need to talk to someone who loves me. Please give me a hug and a kiss and don’t ask much of me for a little bit while I unwind. How about a glass of wine?” If he is already pouring that wine and smiling at her sympathetically, she’ll melt into his arms. If he says, “I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?” they’re headed for a fight.

Couples that work are couples who take the time to learn each other’s nonverbal code as well as each other’s verbal language. Making the effort to truly understand the other’s meaning is one of the most significant acts of love. When both people put aside their defensiveness and work hard to get each other on the meta-level, the couple becomes more and more secure. Knowing how to interpret each other’s signals is the basis of trust and intimacy.

In the early years of a relationship, conversations about what was said versus what was meant can be frequent and can go into the wee hours of the morning. As a couple matures, these conversations are apt to happen less often and be less loaded but they are still important. Communication about what we mean by our communications is complicated. A new life stage, new experiences, or new information can subtly shift our meaning.

How To Learn Each Other’s Metacommunication

  • Don’t assume that your partner means what you mean by the same words and phrases, gestures, or tone of voice. Each family has its own family code. You learned yours. Your partner learned his or hers. Each of you takes it for granted what some things mean. If your partner looks mystified, resist the temptation to get frustrated or judgmental. Instead, stop and ask what your partner heard. Explain what you meant by what you said.
  • Don’t conclude your partner isn’t interested, doesn’t love you, or is a dolt when he or she doesn’t get what you mean. Trouble with each other’s codes doesn’t have to escalate to questioning the whole relationship.
  • Do slow your conversation down. When people don’t understand each other, they tend to get anxious. When people get anxious, they tend to speed up. Instead, take a deep breath and ask your partner to say back what he or she thinks you meant. If they got it wrong, calmly and patiently clarify.
  • Do listen with curiosity and interest. Explain yourself with caring. This isn’t a fight. It’s a lesson in each other’s language. Listening well doesn’t always come naturally, but don’t fret, listening is a skill you can learn.
  • Do put aside defensiveness. When accused of not understanding, admit that it’s probably true. Ask for help in understanding your partner’s code.

If you need further ideas for improving your communication skills with your partner, check out these 9 steps to better communication.