Reading Between the Lines

"Ohhhhh, I'm fine."

Ever said to your partner, "How are you doing?" only to hear them let out a deep sigh, a despondent look, and response, "Ohhhh, I'm fine..."? Hopefully, you're not taking them literally. Hopefully, you've caught on to what they're really communicating... that they're not feeling fine at all!

In any relationship, we often use figurative, and indirect language. However, it's very easy to "miss" what they are actually saying, especially if you're not very good at "reading between the lines", which is critical to noticing what your partner is really saying. 

Emotionally intelligent, healthy couples are able and willing to pay attention to this type of subtlety. Even if this isn't your strength, you can learn! 

anyone can become A better listener

Today, I’d like to discuss how you can improve your relationship by being an even better listener, particularly by learning how to "read between the lines". In my last blog post, I discussed the basics of listening, but today, I’d like to discuss the more advanced skills that go beyond the "reflective listening skills". And just because I'm using the word "advanced", doesn't mean it's difficult.

Believe me when I say that almost anyone (who is willing) can learn how to be more attentive to your partner. You can learn how to notice what your partner is saying when they aren't being so direct--this is a skill critical to emotionally intelligence. Even if you tend to be a direct communicator, most of us don’t speak directly all the time. You’ve got to learn to "read between the lines" by noticing the subtlety your partner uses in everyday conversation.

Not "What" But "How" 

Most everyone knows that listening is critical to a healthy relationship. But advanced listeners know that you have to listen not only to WHAT your partner is saying, but also to HOW your partner is saying things. For example, we sometimes speak in more nuanced ways that aren’t so direct. Sometimes we speak metaphorically, with flowery language that isn’t meant to be taken literally. Think of poetry! How boring would Shakespeare have been if he'd only used direct language. Do you remember your high school English class? "Figurative language" is essential to understand in written language, and it's just as important to understand in speech. Here are a few examples of figurative language that we all use in every day speech.

The Use of Figurative Language in speech

Connotation--Your partner may say, "She's such a stepford wife" when referring to someone they know; of course, you could literally believe that they are describing a married woman living in Stepford, Connecticut, or a woman married to a man named Stepford. More likely, though, they are referring to its more popular connotation, which refers to a woman who is subservient, submissive, and robotically does her husband's bidding like a caricature of a woman from a 1950s household. 

Context Clues--Your partner may be saying one thing, but "showing" you something else through body posture, facial expressions, and gestures) For instance, your partner says "I'm fine" when you ask if they're okay. However, if they are saying this immediately after they learned about a major disappointment, and they are saying "I'm fine" while slumped, with a sad facial expression, and crossed arms... you can bet money that they're not fine. Reading between the lines means seeing that according to their body language and the context of their situation, they are not fine.

Implying--When someone makes a statement that wouldn't make sense if it were interpreted literally, we know that it is meant to be taken figuratively. Simile and metaphor imply something other than a literal meaning. For example, if your partner said, "He looked right through me...I didn't even exist in that meeting" is not literally possible for most humans, unless they have some special x-ray equipment or magical disappearing cloak from Harry Potter. 

Indirect Language--Sometimes we speak indirectly, rather than being direct. People can get particularly judgmental about this, but it's important to remember that there isn't a "right" or a "wrong" communication style. Sometimes people came from a family that was particularly indirect. Or they're trying to be polite, non-demanding, or they're just shy. In our western culture, direct communication is much more popular and valued, but in many eastern cultures, indirect communication is typically more valued. Here, indirect language may seem "passive aggressive" or "immature" to a judgmental eye. However, in an eastern culture, some forms of direct communication can seem rude or insensitive. 

For example, let's say your partner is mowing the lawn and shouts in your direction, with a frustrated tone, "I keep running into these sticks!!!" It might seem like they're just frustrated, but they might be indirectly asking you for help. What they are saying may sound declarative, like they're just making a statement of their frustrated emotion, but they might mean, "I'd love it if you would help me pick up these sticks so that I can mow this lawn more easily!" If you're attuned to your partner's indirect communication, you might ask, "Do you want me to help?" and they might respond, "Oh that's okay...I mean, you can if you want. If you're not busy and you want to, sure, I'd love the help. Thanks for offering!" If you aren't reading between the lines, you might miss an opportunity to be there for your partner and listen to what they're really saying. 

Sarcasm--Sarcasm is an ironic or satirical statement that means the opposite of what is actually being said. For example, someone may seem to be praising someone or something, but they are really taunting or cutting. If it's used in this way, sarcasm can be used to hurt or offend.If it's meant to cut you down, it's a sign of contempt, one of the "4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse", which are the most toxic forms of communication and hurtful to the relationship.

However, sarcasm can be used in a healthy way if it's expressing feelings about the partner's feelings without putting you down. It can also be used for comedic effect. It can be used as a psychological defense mechanism when we're trying to make a joke to cheer ourselves up, or to express frustration without being so direct that it hurts us. For example, your partner might say, "I work 40 hours a week to be this poor!". What they're actually saying is, "I'm so frustrated and discouraged...I can't believe I'm working this hard for so little pay". Also, your partner may convey sarcasm through their tone. For example, they might love a gift you gave them, and when you ask if they like it, they might smile and say, "It's awful! I can't stand it! Please take it back!" 

Metaphor--We use metaphor as a figure of speech to make a comparison between two things that may seem really different from each other, but they have something in common between them. Maybe you had a rough day at work. You could be direct and say to your partner, “Today, I really struggled at work. I felt stressed and anxious that my boss might fire me.” However, you might just say something metaphorically, like “Kill me now before I have to spend another day in that hell hole they call a workplace!”. 

Sure, you could be afraid that your boss is going to literally kill your partner, in which case, I hope that they report it to the police and never go back to stay safe; however, more likely than not, your partner isn't being literal. They're probably just trying to tell youhow stressed they've feeling at work, and that their boss is a big part of that.

Tune in to What Your Partner is Really Saying

As much as possible, try to tune into those less direct ways that your partner may be talking to you. Remember that they're opportunities for connection. And when in doubt, just ask. Use what they’re saying as you reflect back to what you hear. You need to show your partner that you are trying your best to understand what they’re feeling.

For example, if your partner metaphorically said “Ugh. My boss will be the death of me”, you might reflect back, “Wow, sounds like your boss is really stressing you out right now. Is that right? Am I getting it?". Similarly, if your partner said, “I feel like every train has left the station and I’m just waiting here, watching everyone else speed off towards the sunset", you might reflect back the essence of what they're saying, "So you feel like all these things in life are passing you by, and your own life is at a standstill. Is that right? That must be an awful feeling to have. I'm so sorry."

stepping up to the plate

It's really common to say something indirectly to your partner, only to be completely misunderstood, ignored, or have what you're saying "missed" . It's human nature to strike out, and we all do it all the time--even the best of couples, and the most emotionally intelligent. Sometimes we're tired, stressed, half-listening, multitasking, or just out of sync with your partner that day. However, we can always keep improving, and try to hear the underlying message. Just keep working hard to improve your "batting average"!


When you say something indirectly in front of your partner, perhaps you're not even expecting a reply. But how wonderful is it when your partner pleasantly surprises you with understanding? Not only did they hear the underlying message of what you were saying, but then they respond in a kind, attentive way. They just "get it" and you don't have to be direct about it.

It's a wonderful feeling, to be truly seen and heard by your partner, "in tune" with one another, and "on the same wavelength", whether you're being direct or indirect. It makes you feel close, loved, and understood--all foundations for a healthy relationship!