In a previous post I wrote about metacommunication as a concept in communications theory. It’s the idea that every verbal communication in a relationship works on two levels: the message content, and as a means of defining (or re-defining) the relationship. It’s as if every statement within a relationship were preceeded by, “We have the kind of relationship in which I can say to you _____.” This kind of metacommunication starts early in our development. When a rebellious three-year-old says to a parent, “I don’t have to if I don’t want to!” he’s testing the limits, attempting to re-define the relationship as one in which he has the power. When the parent replies, “Oh yes you do!” she’s re-affirming her definition that she, as a parent, has the power in the relationship.
Metacommunication has another meaning in the realm of interpersonal communication. Two people in a relationship metacommunicate when they talk about the way they talk, communicate about their communication. It’s a good way to address boundary issues when they arise, whether with a friend or spouse, or in therapy. “How are we doing?” is an open-ended way to initiate metacommunication in a long-term romantic relationship. The invitation to metacommunicate by one of the partners in the relationship has led to the early, easy resolution of many a misunderstanding or relationship conflict. When two people metacommunicate in good faith, they usually come out of the discussion with a shared definition, or re-definition, of the nature of the relationship and its boundaries.
Here are some examples of metacommunications: “I don’t feel comfortable when you talk that way.” “Hey, can we come up with a ‘time out’ signal for when we’re both too angry to talk?” “You seem to be easily annoyed lately.” “I wish you’d stick to the issue and not bring up old stuff.” Metacommunications can also be positive: “I really like the way we handled that.” “We’re getting better at avoiding silly arguments.”
The clearer the boundaries in a relationship, the less likely that conflicts and power struggles will come about. Boundaries can involve issues of personal space, preferences regarding communication habits and styles, performance expectations, kinds of preferred touching, standards for personal disclosure, sexual boundaries, and many other issues – especially in intimate, committed relationships. People who can metacommunicate in good faith spare themselves and their partners unnecessary conflicts.
Obviously, some people are better than others at setting and maintaining boundaries. Assertive people can more easily set boundaries and confront people who cross them. People pleasers and shy or passive people might find it hard to deal with people who cross their boundaries. Assertiveness is, to some degree, a learnable skill.
Metacommunication only works to improve communication in a relationship if both parties are honest with one another and sincerely want a positive outcome. The words “always” and “never” are seldom helpful, and the use of I-statements can facilitate the process. Almost anything that can be expressed in a you-statement can be re-framed as an I-statement. Open-ended I-statements (“I wish we went out more often.”) are easier to take in than absolute you-statements (“You never want to go out anymore.”) I-statements can be used to express anything in a metacommunication: I wish, I think, I feel, I expect, I love/hate, I want/need, I don’t like it when _____.
When people in long-term relationships don’t metacommunicate in good faith, the parties can get stuck in dysfunctional patterns, and problems can stack up. There can be frequent misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Important thoughts go unexpressed, important feelings are repressed, and intimacy suffers. In troubled marriages, learning to metacommunicate in good faith can break up logjams of misunderstandings and hurt or angry feelings. It’s a skill I taught to many couples in therapy, along with “rules for fair fighting.” I’ll cover those in a later post.