I have recently learned the joys of using Google Translate.
I was trying to find information on products and online retailers in Germany and several other countries, and found that I could easily translate my email inquiries into languages I have no knowledge of with a quick click of the mouse. It was equally easy to understand the replies. It left me wishing that all communication was so easy!
Part of my job as a couple and family therapist is that of translator. While usually partners and family members appear to speak the same language, they often miss what each other is saying, particularly when conversations get heated or conflict starts.
Asking a spouse, “Are you going to be home for supper?” might actually mean, “Do we matter enough to you that you will be home on time for us to share a meal together?”
And an angry rant of “Why are you always late when I need you to pick me up?!?!” is usually a protest that comes out of past experiences that our loved one hasn’t always been there for us when we needed them.
The problem is that when we are on the receiving end, we often only hear the criticism or the question. We think that the issue is whether or not we will be home for dinner or late for the pick-up. But what we think is the issue often isn’t actually the issue at all—the issue is something much more fundamental to our relationship.
So much of our communication in relationships isn’t actually about the topic of conversation, but about the underlying attachment longings, fears and needs that we all have.
Relationship expert Dr. Sue Johnson tells us that for a relationship to be healthy, we need to know our loved one is there for us, and that we matter to them. She identifies four key questions of attachment that we need to be able to answer “yes” to for a relationship to be secure, safe and healthy:
- Do you love me?
- Do I matter to you?”
- Will you be there when I need you and come when I call?
- Do you see me as competent?”
The problem is that these questions often aren’t explicit, but operate implicitly in our interactions with our loved ones. Particularly when we aren’t sure of the answers, these questions fuel our interactions in subtle ways. The more we think the answers are “no” to these key attachment questions, the more distressed our relationships become. Conflict becomes more intense, or we become more withdrawn or shut-down.
And yet, in our longings and fears, we keep asking, seeking reassurance that our partner or parent is going to be there for us. Or we protest, sometimes loudly and aggressively, when our attachment needs aren’t being met. But far too often, our loved one can’t actually hear what we are really asking for.
Learning how to translate our conversations into the language of attachment can change everything. What sounds like a stupid argument about forgetting to take the garbage out or changing the empty toilet paper roll can all of a sudden make sense when we understand the underlying attachment longings, needs and fears.
And when we can more clearly ask for what we need, and when we can clearly reassure our loved ones that we are there for them, relationship hurts are avoided and problems are much more easily resolved since they are no longer loaded down with unspoken attachment issues.
It is amazing how relationships can change when we become able to speak the language of attachment. When conversations are peppered with attachment reassurances, they are far less likely to escalate. A clear, genuine attachment message like, “Hi Honey, I’m stuck in traffic and I’m afraid I’m going to be home late. I’m so sorry because I want to be there for you and the kids—I’ll be home as soon as I can because you are important to me” gives the reassurance needed and prevents attachment fears and doubts from growing or fueling conflict.
I wish there was an actual Google Translate function for the language of attachment. But in the absence of that, there are several other resources that can help. Sue Johnson’s book Hold Me Tight is a great resource, as are the related Hold Me Tight® Workshops that Shalem offers. Or a therapist who uses Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT) can help translate and teach the language so we learn to speak it more fluently ourselves.
Learning to understand and speak in the language of attachment is an essential skill, no matter how many other languages you speak!
Susan Winter Fledderus is a Clinical Therapist with Shalem Mental Health Network
“Hold Me Tight®” is a registered trademark to Sue Johnson.