I studied to be an actor years and years ago. One director I worked with had us actors go through the script and pencil in the subtext underneath our spoken words. Sometimes when a scene wasn’t working, she would ask an actor, “What’s your subtext here?” And when she tweaked the subtext, the scene would begin to swim along beautifully.
Subtext, as you know, is the thing we are really thinking and feeling on the inside as we speak our words. A change in subtext can completely alter the meaning behind the same spoken words.
Consider the sentence “Where were you?” When the subtext underneath is “Oh-my-god something terrible has happened!”
Now consider the same sentence “Where were you?” When the subtext is “I know you were doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing!”
Sounds different, doesn’t it?
In family life, subtext speaks louder than the literal words we speak. This is because in family life we are deeply tuned into the internal lives of one another, thanks to our limbic systems, which operate almost like with little feelers that can sense into the inner reality of those with whom we are closest.
Our children and partners are deeply aware of our subtext. Consider the sentence, “It’s time to go!” This simple phrase might ring with the warm and welcoming subtext of, “Yay team, we can do this!” Alternately, this sentence can have the threatening subtext of, “Don’t you dare make me late for my meeting!”
When things aren’t working in family interactions, often parents look at me wide-eyed and say, “I just told them it was time to go and all hell broke loose!” Subtext: I live with completely unreasonable creatures.
One of the least helpful things we can do in family life is to have a character judgment in our subtext. Partners do this to each other quite often. A simple question like, “Did you say you would pay the phone bill?” Really stings when the subtext animating the question is this: “You are proving yet again that you are an irresponsible person and I am all alone with the burden of running this family.”
Ouch. Ouch for everyone.
Let me be clear though: Negative subtext isn’t something to be ashamed of, and it isn’t something to try to “improve” or get better at through force of will. Unlike as an actor in a play, subtext can’t always just be easily changed without first being understood and accepted.
My work with parents really gets interesting when parents can own their subtext. This is because subtext tells us important things about ourselves. Subtext can tell us how we really feel. Subtext can tell us what we really need. And if we can be direct and straightforward about that, we are far more likely to have the need met.
In my experience, most families want the needs of the individual members to be met. Sometimes it takes some doing to figure out how, but when addressed directly, it’s much easier to meet one another’s needs.
Everyone’s got a subtext: you, your partner, your kids. If you can begin to meet one another there, in the subterranean land of feelings and needs, that’s when intimacy can really happen. And with closeness and intimacy, the day can begin to swim along with more ease and joy.