Developing Your Family's Communication Membrane
By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.
Although most of us are aware that communicating is
an important element of relationships, we do not realize the full impact
of communication on our emotional and physical health. Research on heart
disease reveals that an inability to communicate can contribute to large
and rapid fluctuations in blood pressure which can ravage an already weakened
Psychologist James Lynch describes the concept of a communication
membrane which exists between people in a family. The better able
family members are at identifying and expressing their feelings, the more
quickly their blood pressure returns to normal when emotional excitement
occurs. However when we are unable to identify and verbally express our
feelings, our blood pressure remains more volatile. Biofeedback research
shows that patients with heart disease often suffer increased and prolonged
bouts of high blood pressure because their bodies experience the feelings,
but there is no release of this pressure through effective means for resolving
conflict and being understood. They are literally trapped inside
their bodies unable to express themselves. Dr. Lynch calls this
alexithymia which translated from Latin means no words
for feelings. The inability to communicate our feelings is physically
as well as emotionally distressful.
Patterns of ineffective communication can be passed down
through generations when we grow up in families that have poorly developed
communication skills. A childs self esteem develops in relationship
to the people who love that child. Being understood is a primary and validating
experience we all need in order to develop a solid sense of ourselves
in the world.
However, in some families, even naming the feelings a
child is experiencing may be difficult, leaving him or her vulnerable
to alexithymia in adulthood. Throughout our adult lives, our sense of
self worth is linked to our need to commune with others, to feel
understood. Commune is defined in Websters dictionary
as to converse together intimately, to have spiritual intercourse
with. Effectively communicating with other family members is not
a luxury, but a basic emotional need. If we fail to develop a healthy
communication membrane in our families, we are vulnerable
to increased stress resulting from misunderstandings.
The ability to negotiate our needs in the family and our
capacity to solve problems is also a function of our ability to understand
our feelings. A young child depends on adults to accurately name their
feelings. It is through this process that self awareness develops and
a child begins to verbally articulate what is going on inside.
But having a well-functioning communication membrane
which allows us to receive and send messages smoothly is not just about
physical or emotional health. The overall atmosphere present in a family
is directly related to whether communication facilitates or blocks
conflict resolution. Families may become dysfunctional when
problems cannot be solved. The capacity of family members to resolve problems
contributes to an overall spirit of harmony or dissonance present in the
home. Attention to family atmosphere is important because high and consistent
levels of tension related to unsolved difficulties is thought to be the
single largest contributor to maladjustment in children.
PROBLEM SOLVING AND COMMUNICATION
A common pattern which creates distress in a marriage
is one in which one spouse confronts conflict and the other blocks communication
through withdrawal, sulking, stonewalling, flippancy, discounting or other
methods of conflict avoidance.
One of the strongest predictors of divorce is the inability
to solve problems. Contrary to popular belief, neither dissatisfaction
reported in a marriage nor frequency of disagreements spawn failed marriages.
Instead, styles of communication that inhibit problem solving spell trouble.
A legacy of unresolved conflict may be the writing on the wall. Communication
that relies heavily on blaming, placating, whining or sarcasm to express
feelings leads to protracted discussions with less probability for reaching
solutions. Researchers describe communication to be one of three important
criteria, but the most pivotal in family functioning.
Family communication either strengthens or inhibits bonding
and adaptation, two other important dimensions of family relationships.
It is easy to intuitively identify when we are having
difficulty being understood or getting our point across. Similarly, we
can often feel when we do not connect with another persons interpretation
of an experience. What is more difficult to understand is the relationship
between our own communication and the potential for solving problems.
One way to know if your communication is effective in
the family is to take note of how or if problems get discussed, and if
they do what percentage of time a resolution occurs. Do topics of discussion
reach closure, particularly when action needs to be taken? Pay attention
to how you make decisions in the family and how this process feels to
you and other family members.
One team of family researchers at Brown University describes
7 steps to problem solving:
- Identify the problem
- Communicate with appropriate people about the problem
- Develop a set of possible alternative solutions
- Decide on one of the alternatives
- Carry out action required to guarantee action is taken
- Monitor to guarantee action is taken
- Evaluate effectiveness of your decision-making process
If communication skills are poorly developed, it will
prove difficult to get past the second step of conveying your description
of the problem to someone else. Likewise, unresolved conflict could be
expressed in a miscarriage of action once it is decided (fifth step).
However, if family members gestate a decision through to the final step
of self- reflection, they are more likely to give birth to a feeling of
team spirit, whatever the outcome.
How decisions are made in a family is often more
crucial to positive feelings between family members than what is
Below is an exercise in listening and empathy,
the first step towards healthy communication. Family researchers have
identified six areas of family communication, however listening
to emotionally laden messages without automatically blocking the flow
of a discussion is primary in laying a foundation for solving problems.
For this reason, listening will take up the lions share of the discussion
The following discussion and exercises are intended to
help stimulate thought and reflection on your recollection of childhood
patterns of communication and problem solving and your current familys
Every family is a unique culture. Adjust this information
to your own values and needs. When applying it to your spouse, an attitude
of curiosity and exploration of your family and how it operates may prove
beneficial, as well as a realization that you are a team when it comes
to making decisions together. Naturally, when you are applying it to your
children you retain final decision making. In this way, family boundaries
and roles remain clear of ambiguity .
DEVELOPING YOUR COMMUNICATION MEMBRANE
Six Elements of Healthy Communication
Childhood experience: Ask yourself if you were
listened to as a child in your family, and if other family members
listened to each other or not. This will give you an understanding
of your own trust in being understood and the pressure you might feel
around communication that is rooted in the past. Remember, it is never
too late to develop skills, or take the time for listening
that we did not learn or experience in childhood. Life is for learning.
And now it is your turn as parents to decide what kind of family atmosphere
you want to develop!
Rate your overall childhood experience of feeling
listened to in your family on the scale below. You may also rate your
childhood experience as it relates to your relationship with your
mother, father, or other family members separately, if you wish.
Present family experience: Ask yourself and members
of your family to tell you whether they feel understood most of the
time by others in the family, some of the time, almost never, etc. Use
the same scale above to assist you. You may also want to ask, specifically
if someone feels understood by individual members. If you do so, it
is important to understand that it is common for children to feel more
or less understood by different parents at different times, and this
exercise should be done with full cooperation, knowledge and participation
of all family members to ensure a spirit of camaraderie in understanding
almost always---mostly---usually---sometimes --seldom--almost never
It is particularly helpful to do with just your
marital partner as a tool for assessing how each of you experiences
Remember that the goal is to understand the
family members experience, not to judge their experience. Also,
be aware of any self-criticism or judgment if you experience difficulty
understanding someones experience in the beginning. Developing
compassion for yourself is the first step in being able to develop
a family atmosphere of empathy and trust.
Developing your listening skill. Wherever you
currently rate your experience of being listened to in your family,
listening skills can always be improved. This is especially true during
emotionally laden discussions when conflicts arise. The more practice,
the easier it will be to voluntarily call upon a capacity to express
yourself in a way that is non-blaming, and be able to listen to your
partners experience without blocking communication.
The more you use the techniques below, the easier
and more quickly you will be able to get back on track when you do
become defensive or attacking. Afterall, it is natural to become
reactive in the course of daily living. However being able to get
back on track, without losing large amounts of time to polarizing
discussions will help you solve problems more effectively. And it
will help you free up love for one another, following a short-lived
but appropriate release of anger. If couples can express anger and
resentments to one another without blaming or punishing, love is preserved
and intimacy blossoms!
Listening includes the ability to be attentive to
the other persons experience of what is being discussed. It
also means being able to understand and empathize with their
experience, even when you do not agree or have an opposite view. Showing
empathy is crucial to your partners ability to hear your experience
when it is your turn to describe it.
Using the following sentence, fill in the blanks with
your appropriate feelings, the description of behavior you are responding
to, and your emotional interpretation of what the behavior means to
you. When you fill in the blank for imagined, you may
find that your feelings are partially rooted in past childhood experiences
which may color the way you are receiving your partners message.
This exercise offers an opportunity for clarification, including the
possibility of separating past and present realities.
I feel ________ when you _______ and I imagine _______.
For example: I feel anxious when you swear
and I imagine you are about to lose control of yourself and hit me.
Or: I feel tense when you swear and I imagine you will withdraw from
being affectionate to me the rest of the evening.
Your partner then should reflect back to you an accurate
understanding of your feelings, without defending or explaining himself
before he or she connects with you around being understood.
For example: You feel anxious that my swearing
will result in my hurting you physically. Is that right? You feel
afraid that my swearing means that I wont be loving to you the
rest of the day. Did I get it?
When you use this method of communicating around emotionally
charged topics, you will be more likely to be understood because you
are eliminating blaming your partner for how you feel. You are expressing
your feelings without attacking the other person. This makes it easier
for your partner to understand your feelings when they are different
from their own. Using I statements also allows you
to validate your own feelings. This eliminates the pressure for two
people to see things exactly the same in order to feel connected
Space for two people to experience the world differently
decreases the possibilities of misinterpretation. And this kind of
connecting allows people to reflect on the source of these feelings,
sorting out what percentage of their feelings belong to their present
partnership experience, and how much of it may relate to past childhood
relationships. Because there is more space for feelings, the understanding
can evolve more smoothly.
For example: I know youve never
hit me. I guess your anger triggers my experience of being hit by
my brother when I was a kid.
When clarifications like the above can happen, partners
will be more able to increase their capacity for receiving messages
that carry strong emotions, (including anger) from their partner,
without overreacting. The more we build tolerance for feelings, without
responding with defensive blocking techniques such as withdrawal or
blaming, the greater our ability is for closeness and intimacy. Trust
is built through an experience of safety in being able to express
powerful feelings without distorting communication.
When you take the time to listen, you develop a sense
of trust. The experience of being understood cannot be overestimated
in its effect on soothing the other person, enabling them to then
really listen to your experience, explanation or clarification. This
is your best insurance that you will be heard when you begin to explain
your viewpoint and explore what of your partners experience
is true, and what is a misinterpretation of your behavior. These skills
are necessary for deepening intimacy throughout the years of a marriage,
and go a long way in beginning to resolve conflict.
Setting aside 15 minutes each evening will be enough
to begin increasing your listening skills with this exercise. You
can take turns alternating days of being the listener with your partner
if you like, so the exercise is easy to do. Even if you think you
are too tired, you may find that receiving empathy can be rejuvenating.
And being able to connect as the listener may give you a feeling of
accomplishment and maturity which deepens your appreciation of not
only your partner, but yourself!
- Speaking for yourself and not others: Children
whose experiences are constantly explained by someone else may not develop
their own sense of what their feelings or opinions are, much less be
able to express themselves in the world. A developing sense of self
includes speaking for yourself and not others, unless they are truly
unable to do so (i.e. too young or too sick,etc.)
Though children may not always be able to express
themselves clearly, they will develop their ability to do so if given
the opportunity. Valuing the expression of feelings, however, does
not mean you are always in agreement. Nor do feelings negate consequences
or discipline when it is required. However speaking for others can
also contribute to involving others in an argument, inappropriately.
When this happens, family communication can become particularly distressful.
Dad: Its cold in here. Put this shirt
Mom: Its not cold in here. Sam doesnt
need that shirt.
Sam (age 12): I dont want that shirt.
Its ugly! Im fine. Leave me alone!
Children are less likely to become entangled in disagreements
between parents if parents speak for themselves and request the same
of their children.
Dad: Im cold. Im going to get
myself a shirt. Do you need one, Sam? How about you, Honey?
(directed to wife).
Sam: No thanks, Dad. Im fine.
Mom: Im not cold either. Thanks.
Discuss with your partner: Did family members
speak for each other in your childhood? Do members in your current
family speak for themselves most of the time, (I feel
vs. You feel) or is it common practice to assume you can
represent others experiences in the family?
Research on communication shows that when members
commonly express feelings for others in the family, information is
likely to be distorted and individuals experience difficulty being
autonomous. The first example above also shows the potential for alienation
to occur when parents repeatedly triangulate a child in their own
- Self-disclosure: Being able to share your own
feelings of resentment as well as love and appreciation are examples
of sharing intimate feelings in the family. Feeling safe enough to share
things that may be troubling requires that families do not expect perfection
in people. Being human means that people may experience unpopular
feelings in the family. But being able to express them will help ease
the pain. In this way, families act as shock absorbers for one another.
If self-disclosure is practiced, a family can be a safe place to retreat
from the world, temporarily, while recovering from lifes ups and
Discuss with your partner: To what degree did
you feel it was safe to express feelings in your family as a child?
Evaluate how easy or difficult it is to share unpopular feelings with
one another in your present family. Together you set the climate for
family intimacy and sharing. This is your chance to decide what kind
of family atmosphere you want to create!
- Clarity of the message: Whether a message is
clearly communicated depends on how direct the communication is and
if the verbal and non-verbal communication matches.
Example (indirect): It would be nice
if sometimes a person were able to do something in this family without
The above message is indirect in many ways. It lacks
clarity about who is sending the message, to whom the
message is being sent, what it is that is being criticized,
by whom, and what exactly is being asked for. Indirect
messages tend to be dead-ended because it takes so much energy to
ascertain what is being said and what should be responded to. These
communications rarely lead to anything other than frustration.
Example (direct): I feel hurt when you
criticize my cooking every evening. Please tell me what you want to
It is much easier to understand what the message is
when it is clear and direct. The likelihood of some level of resolution
of conflict between people increases.
Nonverbal tone which does not match the content of
the message can also be confusing, particularly to young children
who understand tonality but dont yet fully comprehend words.
Example: Did you know I get (giggling) really
angry when you (giggles) embarrass me by calling me names in front
of your family?
Even for adults, the nonverbal tone communicates a
much weaker message, one that is not meant to be remembered, or taken
Example: I feel really angry when you
call me names in front of your family. It embarrasses me! A
natural emphasis of tone on angry and embarrasses
congruently communicates to the right hemisphere of the brain (which
picks up tonality) that these feelings are important, to be taken
seriously and remembered.
Discuss together: What was the communication
like between members of your family in childhood? Was it direct or
indirect? Clear or ambiguous? Did nonverbal and verbal communication
generally match, or were there incongruencies, double messages? Explore
your experience in your present family. If necessary, you can research
this by listening closely during the next week and writing down your
observations about your family communication. Then come back the next
week and share your experience with one another.
- Continuity: Tracking and staying on topic
Researchers found that completing discussions of a
topic during a conversation contributed significantly to healthy family
communication. Discussions which allow for democratic expressions,
opinions and sharing while staying on track enable children
to learn the skills necessary to set and achieve goals. Critical thinking
is a process that is learned in the family setting.
Distractions that block follow through on a topic
can take a variety of forms: irrelevant asides, changing topics midstream,
interrupting the flow of discussion are all potential contributors
to fuzzy thinking and potentially ineffective problem solving.
However, a very interactive family may interrupt without
damage to critical thinking and problem solving if they get
back on track and carry a topic through to some sense of completion.
Interruptions that add to the information needed or develop a topic
may be invigorating as long as these interruptions are not a result
of one person dominating the discussion.
Topic changes or interruptions which are in the
service of keeping one person center stage in the family result
in one sided discussions which may meet the need for attention of
one family member to the exclusion of staying either on the topic
or allowing other members a chance to express themselves.
Pay attention to discussions in your family. Ask yourself
and your partner the following questions in relation to childhood
family discussions and your own present familys debates:
- Do topics reach natural closure or are there abrupt
changes in topics that disrupt continuity?
- Is there equal air time for all members who have
something to say about a topic?
- Do people disrupt the flow of conversation through
topic changes? distractions? asides that pull attention away from
completing thoughts or establishing a plan of action?
- Do interruptions abort continuation or closure
on the topic, or does someone bring the topic back for completion?
- Respect and Positive Regard:
Naturally the more you feel like you matter, the easier
the flow of communication in a family. To treat one another with respect
for feelings, even when we disagree has clearly obvious benefits.
However, less obvious is whether for other reasons, people feel unimportant
in the family.
Younger siblings are often the most vulnerable to
feeling unimportant in a family because of their developmental limits.
For example, everyone else can do certain things, like ride a bicycle,
but 3 year old Sam. His older sister Sarah who is 6 has already been
to kindergarten and knows hundreds more things than he does. It is
very easy for a younger child to see him or her self as not being
as valuable a contributor to the family. It is important to identify
ways he or she is unique even though they are unable to do as many
things as the older members in the family! And it is important to
take time to listen to youngsters who do not yet have the vocabularies
or speed in self expression that their older sibs enjoy.
Families with one girl and three boys, or one boy
and three girls may find that the odd sexed sibling feels left out,
instead of special. Even Moms who have a husband and three sons may
feel left out in this way. Did you feel yourself an important member
of your family in childhood? Ask your present family members about
their sense of importance to the family. Respect for their feelings
about their role in the family will be validating.
What is clear from the research is that when the communication
membrane is healthy between family members, relationships are more
likely to flourish. There is a smoother flow of emotions which may also
allow our love to be more fully expressed and received.
It is my hope that this information may assist you on
your journey as parents, with one another and with your children. As parents
you are the leaders and the best source of authority on your own children
and their needs. You are in the best position to know what really works.
Whatever your childhood experience, you are the parents now! It
is your turn to decide what kind of family you want to make together.
Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist
specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains
professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is
the author of An
Easier Childbirth, Birthing
Normally and her latest book, Making
Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships
appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted
expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering
and Parenting. . She also
serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.
Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.
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