Why do we communicate the way we do? (Part 1)

Why do we communicate the way we do?

There are MANY theories as to why we communicate the way we do.  The most recent and well researched theory asserts that our communication and interaction styles begin to develop very early in life and are shaped by our life experiences.  Let me provide a brief explanation of this theory.

This theory focuses on the connection between early experiences with caregivers on how we experience and express emotion throughout the lifespan.  Often it is in the expression of emotions that we have the most difficulty communicating.  As an infant, we continually monitor the accessibility of caregivers and tend to “flee” to this caregiver for safety in times of distress.  This is where the concepts of “attachment” and “secure base” come from.  It is through these attachment experiences that infants learn to cope or survive in their particular environment.  When caregivers can not or do not meet the infant’s needs, the infant’s ability to manage his or her emotions is affected.  Based somewhat on the temperament of the infant, they will tend to respond in one of two ways, by either “pursuing” or “withdrawing.”

For example, if an infant is ignored by her caregiver when she gets distressed, she may learn that by crying louder and longer (pursue), she gets the attention of a caregiver.  Unfortunately, after hearing this screaming baby, the caregiver may not respond in a very caring way.  This baby learns that, although they have to scream and holler to get attention (albeit negative), it’s better to get negative attention than no attention.  If the infant learns that, even by screaming she does not get her needs met, she may “give up” (withdraw) because she knows her efforts will be fruitless. This baby learns that it doesn’t matter what she does, her needs are not important, so why even try.  This makes it difficult for either infant to trust that others will take care of her.  This is where the terms “secure” and “insecure” attachment come from.  These tendencies/approaches to care then become a template which is then used to view others in relationships and get perpetuated through life.

Now, most of us were securely attached to our caregivers.  However, we all have the tendency to either pursue or withdraw when distressed as adults.  Sound familiar?  I bet you tend to fall into one of these categories yourself.  We all learn to interpret the interactions we had with our caregivers and apply those expectations for how we should be treated by others to relationships outside of the caregiver relationship.  You don’t have to remember these interactions for them to influence you into adulthood!! 

Stay tuned for Part II where we discuss how this influences our adult relationships and what we can do about it!