Since I am a visual learner, I created the above picture to demonstrate a few powerful relationship principles that as a therapist I teach all of my couples and put into practice myself.
From a neuroscience perspective, we all have brains which are geared for war (and love). We have a nervous system that is constantly ready to fight, flight or freeze when threatened. When we are in conflict with our loved one, our threat system becomes activated, and we have a tendency to shower them with our “Hard and Hot” emotional reactivity, which is what you see above the iceberg. We speak to them angrily, get defensive, and when we are battle-worn we can freeze-up, numb-out, and retreat to a safer place to protect ourselves. The problem is that our reactivity promotes their reactivity, and around and around we go. The negative dance is in full effect, and our mutual reactivity has increased our feelings of disconnection. This is why we are encouraged to “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another” (Ephes. 4:31).
One of the most powerful ways to build intimacy and avoid the reactive dance is to communicate below the iceberg—communicate our warmer emotions in a soft, vulnerable way. A wise man once said, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Our tone and how fast or slow we start conversations (otherwise known as prosody), has a huge part to play in how our conversations end up and thus our feeling of connection or disconnection. Research shows that when people start a conversation harshly or reactively it has a 96% chance of going nowhere. Why? Because reactivity promotes reactivity and vulnerability promotes vulnerability. We can either trigger our partner’s threat system, and hard and hot emotional experience, or trigger their tend and befriend system, increasing their desire to be vulnerable, and soft and warm emotional experience. I tell my couples, “Soft and slow makes the relationship grow, hard and fast makes the relationship crash.”
It is not just how we communicate; it is also what we communicate. It is easy to speak from a place of reactivity and anger, pointing the finger, and blaming your partner. For example, as soon as a wife’s husband came home, she let him have it, “You told me you would be on time. You didn’t even call. Your so selfish. You don’t care about me” (above the iceberg). It is harder to say in a soft, vulnerable manner, “I felt anxious and alone when you didn’t come home on time and didn’t call. I felt like I was not important to you and that really hurt” (below the iceberg).
Here is another example. A wife was concerned about how her husband was disciplining their kids. She tried to talk to him about it and immediately the husband reacted angrily, “Don’t tell me how to discipline my kids! I come home from work, busting my ass all day, and don’t need a lecture from you. Just leave me the hell alone.” If we can rewind the tape, the husband, instead of being defensive, could have spoken from below the iceberg, “Honey, I am feeling a lot of shame and feelings of inadequacy right now. The last thing I wanted was to become like my dad. I fear I have some of his tendencies, and that scares me. I am struggling.”
Whether we are male or female, we all have a hard time sharing below the iceberg. It is difficult to talk about our sadness, hurt, fear, loneliness, shame, and other vulnerable emotions. Though engaging in intimacy (in-too-me-see) is hard, it is worth it. Over time, our sharing below the iceberg forges a depth and emotional connection that can bind our hearts together creating a lasting emotionally connective relationship and friendship.
Take a risk. Share underneath the iceberg in a soft and slow way and watch your relationship grow day after day!