Listening for the Message Behind the Message


When you feel attacked your brain goes into protective mode. It feels danger and wants to avoid this danger. That is why you should avoid angry messages toward your partner. But let's face it, you will be angry and your partner will be angry, so how should you respond to this anger.

Your protective brain needs to know that there is a safe message behind the anger. Fortunately, angry messages typically hide their true message behind a wall of protection. "I'm hurt but I'll only show you anger. Anger leaves me less vulnerable than expressing hurt!" Your task is to find the true message, then respond to this message rather than the outward display of anger.

"You're an ass!" Such a message sounds like a statement directed toward you, a clear rejection of your character. Your brain wants to avoid this attack by (1) moving away, (2) defending yourself, or (3) attacking back. Each of these options will guarantee greater detachment and a loss of intimacy.

There is a fourth option. This option is to realize that the message behind the message is a statement your partner is making about him or herself. He or she may be stating irritability, hurt, disappointment or a variety of other messages that have been packaged in the message "You're an ass!"

The goal is to discover what that message means. How? Ask yourself what is your partner saying about him or herself, or challenge your partner to share his or her view and feelings. Sometimes simply responding, "What's wrong?" will do the trick. Other times you need to dig deeper and say, "I want to discuss this with you, but your tone is making it difficult to listen."

For further inquiries:

Check out Lee Horton, Ph.D., Psychologist, at

Phone: (901) 818- 5450