Why It’s Important to be Aware of Words and Emotions in Your Relationships

Why It’s Important to be Aware of Words and Emotions in Your Relationships

Maude is still away with her friend this week, so I’m writing about relationships. I want to start by describing how humans work and how we got this way.

In earlier species, the brain was the receiver of senses and the instigator of motor activity. Still true; touch a hot stove, and you pull your hand away faster than you can think. Over this old brain, mammals grew a new brain–the neocortex–that added memory and prediction. Squirrels remember where they buried acorns last summer. Bats plan their flight paths to best capture multiple prey.

The neocortex grew in importance, and in humans, an extraordinary thing happened–we developed language, and this turned thinking into a superpower.

Starting with the use of labels to stand for things like apples, actions like running, categories like fruit, and interior experiences like sadness, words were used as metaphors to explain the world, and those explanations were further labeled and combined to create ideas that we cannot see directly—ideas like God, gravity or negative numbers. “Run over the figures for me.” Run? Over? Figures? Each of these words and its meaning has their origins in the physical world.

Language is the way that ideas are passed from one person to another, allowing each person to benefit from the thoughts of many others. In this way, we have constructed a house of understanding whose foundation rests on the ground of experience and whose bricks are ideas stacked one on top of another and held in place by the mortar of logic.

By building and sharing knowledge in this way over millennia, we have learned how to understand and control the world more than any other species. Thinking has been the source of inventions that formed society, from textiles to television. Human civilization is the consequence—and proof—of the power of thought.

Peaceful relationships pay attention to both verbal and non-verbal communications #relationships Share on XBut we still respond to the world and each other using the old brain, too. Sigmund Freud described the subconscious; Danial Kahneman writes about fast and slow thinking. We have two ways of interpreting the world that are often different; one is a verbal description and the other is an emotional response. We are receiving contradictory messages about the world. It is like listening to two radio stations at once. These two ways interact with each other; our thoughts can usually moderate our emotions, and our feelings play an important part in our decisions.

And so it is with relationships; there are dual connections. We are drawn to someone by their words and ideas. Do they agree with how I see the world? Do they have the same kind of curiosity, humor, taste? But there is also a non-verbal connection, which can be positive, negative or more complicated.

You might think that a business relationship would be just about verbal agreements, but I recall hiring a tree service that became complicated, involving a broken arm and workers’ compensation claims. As this played out, I remembered my initial discomfort with the contractor and saw that I should have taken that as a warning.

So I think that in all relationships, whether business, friends, family or personal, the non-verbal plays an important part. It’s affected by how you feel about and respond to other people, and psychology has a huge array of terms to describe this; popular at the moment is Attachment Theory. This applies to the other person also, so it’s a question of how the two of you interact.

I think that some romantic relationships struggle because of a mismatch between the two types of attraction; sometimes there is a strong physical attraction – “My DNA wants to make babies with that person!” – but the two people have different beliefs about money or where to live. Conversely, they may match well on paper but struggle to keep passion alive.

The way we speak about these relationships is very telling. People say “I am in a relationship,” or “I was in a relationship,” or “I want to be in a relationship.” People actually in a relationship only ever use the present tense, and this is how our old brain experiences the world, as timeless, eternal. The neocortex thinks in terms of time because it handles memory and planning predictions. This means that personal relationships are grounded in the old brain, our experiential self.

Because memory and planning has proved to be such an effective survival strategy, and language has sharpened those skills so much, our attention is largely focused on the verbal arena, and the old brain, whose messages arrive as intuitions, desires and emotions, can get overlooked.

Even in personal relationships, where the emotional old-brain connection is a major part, it is easy for planning and everyday life to obscure that somewhat. When Maude was hospitalized with an emergency many years ago, I was overwhelmed by the intensity of my connection to her.

I’m not arguing here for ignoring thinking; it plays a crucial part in emotional regulation, but we need to pay attention to both voices; our old brain has its hand on the wheel whether we are watching or not. This is where meditation and self-reflection comes in, to give us a chance at hearing both of those messages. Peaceful relationships take both voices into account.

Photo credit: Maude Mayes
Photo note: Catherine and Suzanne on the porch

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3 Comments on “Why It’s Important to be Aware of Words and Emotions in Your Relationships

  1. Brilliant ,insightful as well as comforting to address our very complicated experiences happening on all these levels at once. Comforting because so often I experience a multi-leveled response and I am forced to sit quietly and breathe deeply while I decipher the feelings.mind and spirit messages that are conflicted.
    Thank you for the history that brings it all in a palatable perspective. Thank you!

    • Glad you liked it. This is an idea I have been playing with for some time, and although the idea of the subconscious is not new, framing it as two voices has been useful for me. I see meditation like zazen as quieting the verbal and paying attention to the non-verbal and the sense of being, not doing.

  2. Phil wrote a terrific column today. (You both write so well!( I love it! I think people need to understand how their bodymind’s operating system functions in order to develop their thinking/feeling functions and bring them into better balance.

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