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  • Communication Skills and Our Adaptive Child

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    In sessions, partners often ask me for tools to help with communication.

    In our formal education we are never really taught effective ways to communicate, and such tools are very important; if we practice communication skills, our relationships will improve significantly.

    However, if just learning communication skills was all it took for healthy relationships, then we wouldn’t have so many relationship problems.

    But when we are live with our partner, sometimes there’s a part of us that isn’t interested in using communication skills. This part is referred to as the adaptive child.

    The adaptive child develops in proportion to childhood trauma.

    The more trauma we experience, the greater the need to adapt defensively in response, to exercise self-protection.

    Even if we didn’t experience overt trauma, we still learn maladaptive behavior from what was modeled in our family. No one makes it out of childhood without acquiring a set of defensive or modeled responses.

    Fortunately, with the help of a HOCI trained therapist, one can have a different relationship with one’s adaptive childhood behaviors.

    For example, take emotional neglect. If no one really tried to “reach into us” and convey interest in our inner self – what we’re thinking or feeling – we may adapt by not being in touch and aware of our emotions, because there was no use for them.

    As stated in this blog, I grew up in just this kind of family environment of emotional neglect. As a result, one of my adaptations is passive-aggressive withdrawal. Fast-forward to today, and ask my wife how annoying and hurtful this now-maladaptive behavior can be.

    If I’m triggered, and the adaptive child in me wants to fall into passive-aggressive withdrawal, in order to be relationally conscious with my wife, I have to affirm, validate, and set a limit on that younger part of myself.

    After I’ve taken some appropriate space to calm any reactivity, the self-talk goes a little like this:

    “Little Jason, I see you, acknowledge you, love you, and I’m here for you. But I, as the healthy functional adult, got this. You don’t have to deal with my wife. Get in the back seat – you’re not driving today.”

    This is called re-parenting the self.

    It’s a practice of self-love and limit-setting that can get you back into a state of mind to be relational and to use your communication skills.

    Our functional adult is much better at relationships than our adaptive child.

    When we’re in our functional adult mindset, what are some good communication skills? Here’s a list inspired by Terry Real:

    • Accountability: Tell your partner you’re sorry, and own it. Not, “I’m sorry, but you have to understand…”
    • Vulnerability: Communicate what’s underneath the anger. For example, “When you do ____, it makes me feel like I don’t matter to you.”
    • Empathy: Say to your partner, “I really want to understand where you’re coming from here…”

    We do this work because we deserve better, our partners deserve better, and our kids deserve better.

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