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Imagery: The True Language of Intimate Communication

Successful communication between intimate partners is crucial to their success.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Successful communication between intimate partners is crucial to their success as a couple.

When they are newly in love, most couples share their internal world using voice intonation, body language, rhythm, and touch to make certain their partners understand what they truly mean. They want their partners to imagine the same experience as they are having, to see through their eyes.

Yet, too often, over time, couples change that behavior. They begin using verbal short-cuts and minimal gestures, assuming and believing that they are still communicating as adequately as they once did.

Sadly, this practice is increasing. Even using emojis and pictures, unadorned two-dimensional texts cannot correct the frequent assumptions and misunderstandings that texting regularly creates.

During the four decades I’ve been working with couples, I have been increasingly disturbed by this trend. It has become so common, that, even in my office, I see the same superficial short-cuts and the constant misunderstandings they create.

Couples who stay in touch with each other’s internal world must begin using imagery again to be able to imagine what it is truly like to live in the hearts and minds of the others.

Some cultures communicate this way naturally. An American Indian man once told me that there was a herd of buffaloes running around in his head, instead of just telling me that he had a “headache.” A Buddhist patient of mine told me that his facial cancer felt as if his “angry grandmother was pulling his cheeks away from the bone because he was rebellious with her as a child.” I felt his grandmother’s frustration with him as well as his physical pain.

I fondly remember a 9-year-old boy, when I asked him why he was in therapy, looking at me as if I was truly dense. “My drunk mother staggers around the room with her boobs hanging out, and my dad’s a pervert and a liar. He makes me feel like I want to throw something at him. He has all these naked girl pictures under his bed and wants me to be a priest. Does he think I’m so stupid that I can’t see that he’s just covering his own shit? I feel like my insides are on fire.”

I got the picture, the remarkably communicated imagery. I was invited into his internal world by his colorful descriptions and by his open hunger for anyone to just understand. I could feel his pain because he created the imagery that helped me see it as if I were there.

Communicating with imagery requires the use of more exact descriptive adjectives and phrases to help differentiate one phrase from another. If you simply, for example, tell someone that you “feel dizzy,” the person listening has no idea whether you mean dazed, woozy, reeling, or just off-balance, the way they would feel if they used the same word.

Or what if your partner describes the peach he’s eating as really “yummy.” Maybe he or she really means something more like delectable, luscious, enticing, or mouth-watering. Wouldn’t one of those other words communicate a different experience to you? Especially if your grandma had a peach tree and your summers were filled with memories of peach pie and peach jam.

Every word or phrase conjures up links to other memories and prior moments, often very different for each partner. If they are communicated without using imagery, it is much more likely they will not be accurately shared.

The best way I can illustrate this is to give a couple of examples that illustrate the difference between superficial communication and imagery-rich communication. I’ve deliberately made one about joy and one about sorrow to show how important these changes can be across the span of human experience. And because couples today most often connect by texting, I’ve written them in that context.

Example Number One

Short-cut way of communicating:

Joe’s text:

“Hi, sweetheart. Just got out of the meeting. Things went great. I think I’ve nailed it. Let’s go out tonight and celebrate.”

Katie’s reply:

“Sounds wonderful. I’m so proud of you. See you soon, honey.”

Using Imagery:

Joe’s text:

“Hi, sweetheart. Are you sitting down? Pretend I’m not in a hotel room an hour away in my shorts getting ready to take a welcome shower, cause everything in me wants to take you in my arms so you can feel my heartbeat. I’m so damned excited. I walked into that interview literally sweating.

There was no way I thought they’d be able to see my vision. It just took a few minutes. I kept pretending you were behind them doing your great thumbs-up, go-for-it expression. It helped me calm down. I focused on the most important person in the room and just pretended he’d known me from the beginning and already knew my work and my dreams.

It was like being in a magical place, as if the world was in my pocket. Get ready to be with your new guy, babe. I’ll be home as soon as the freeway jungle lets me free. Pick your favorite restaurant and don’t worry about what it costs. This is our night.”

Katie’s response:

“I’m so incredibly proud of you. My heart is bursting and I’m smiling like a Cheshire Cat sitting on the kitchen floor with your wonderful pooch on my lap. He either knows something’s up or is just hungry, cause he’s drooling and grinning. We look like twins, except he’s cuter.

I feel like we’re sitting on the moon together, playing catch with the stars. I was there with you. I astro-projected myself into your world while watching the ocean. Dolphins came. I knew it was a sign.

I know how you love to have people around you when you’re excited. Would you like me to round up the admiration-posse and have them join us for dinner? I’ll have you to myself, later, and I’m OK with sharing you first. I love you so much.”

Example Number Two:

Short-cut way of communicating:

Avery’s text:

“I took Misty to the vet for her check-up. I thought everything was fine and that she was just a little dehydrated cause of the heat. She had cancer all throughout her body. He told me that the humane thing was to put her down because she was in obvious pain and there was nothing she could do. I’m so sad. I wish you were here.”

Charlie’s response:

“Oh, wow, honey. I had no idea she was so sick. I have this important meeting until late. Hope you’ll be OK. Call a friend if you need to until I can get home tomorrow night. She was a great cat. We’ll get another one. You’ll be OK.”

Using Imagery:

Avery’s text:

“I know you have that important meeting tonight and you’re probably tense and worried, because I know how you get when you feel under the gun like this. But I’m so sad and I just need to feel your presence even if you’re so far away.

OK, here it comes. Our cat died today at the vet. I know we’ve both been a little worried because of her turning her food away, but I truly didn’t know. I can hardly talk, Charlie. I’m so upset. I’m walking around in circles and feel totally disoriented like it’s night when it’s morning and my world isn’t making sense.

I keep hearing her meowing and I think I see her, then I know I will never see her again. I feel so stupid because other people have things so much worse, but she gave me so much comfort. I can’t even see the phone because I crying so hard so I might be making mistakes. I didn’t even get to say goodbye. She was in my arms one minute and the next she was gone.

I’m so sorry to lay this on you, Charlie, but I need your support."

Charlie’s response:

“Honey, I’m so sorry. This really sucks. You never ask me for anything when you know I’m up against it, and I can hear the pain. It’s coming through your words. I feel so hopeless being so far away when you need me.

I’ll be through here in a couple of hours. I’ll FaceTime you as soon as I can get away for two minutes. Just stay put, have a glass of wine, turn on a sad movie. That will help the tears to keep flowing the way they should right now.

I know how hard it is for you to reach out when you’re in trouble so you don’t need to call anyone else if you don’t want to. Even though I’m not near, you can still feel me close. We’ve done this before when we were separated for a month, remember? We just both close our eyes and pretend we’re touching.

I know she was your baby and I’m not very good at showing my feelings but I loved her, too, in my own way. If we grieve together, it won’t hurt as much. Maybe she can still hear you.

Talk to her. It’s not crazy.

Take care, sweetheart. I’m with you every minute."

* * * * * * * *

Hopefully, the differences between these two conversations are clear. You can find yourself somewhere in their moments. The feelings of belonging and mattering are clear and the results can be magical.

Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love.

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