Communication & Problem-Solving
Developing Your Family's Communication Membrane

By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.

Although most of us are aware that communicating is an important element of relationships, we do not realize the full impact of communication on our emotional and physical health. Research on heart disease reveals that an inability to communicate can contribute to large and rapid fluctuations in blood pressure which can ravage an already weakened cardiovascular system.

Psychologist James Lynch describes the concept of a “communication membrane” which exists between people in a family. The better able family members are at identifying and expressing their feelings, the more quickly their blood pressure returns to normal when emotional excitement occurs. However when we are unable to identify and verbally express our feelings, our blood pressure remains more volatile. Biofeedback research shows that patients with heart disease often suffer increased and prolonged bouts of high blood pressure because their bodies experience the feelings, but there is no release of this pressure through effective means for resolving conflict and being understood. They are literally “trapped inside their bodies” unable to express themselves. Dr. Lynch calls this “alexithymia” which translated from Latin means “no words for feelings”. The inability to communicate our feelings is physically as well as emotionally distressful.

Patterns of ineffective communication can be passed down through generations when we grow up in families that have poorly developed communication skills. A child’s self esteem develops in relationship to the people who love that child. Being understood is a primary and validating experience we all need in order to develop a solid sense of ourselves in the world.

However, in some families, even naming the feelings a child is experiencing may be difficult, leaving him or her vulnerable to alexithymia in adulthood. Throughout our adult lives, our sense of self worth is linked to our need to commune with others, to feel understood. “Commune” is defined in Webster’s dictionary as “to converse together intimately, to have spiritual intercourse with”. Effectively communicating with other family members is not a luxury, but a basic emotional need. If we fail to develop a healthy “communication membrane” in our families, we are vulnerable to increased stress resulting from misunderstandings.

The ability to negotiate our needs in the family and our capacity to solve problems is also a function of our ability to understand our feelings. A young child depends on adults to accurately name their feelings. It is through this process that self awareness develops and a child begins to verbally articulate what is going on inside.

But having a well-functioning “communication membrane” which allows us to receive and send messages smoothly is not just about physical or emotional health. The overall atmosphere present in a family is directly related to whether communication facilitates or blocks conflict resolution. Families may become dysfunctional when problems cannot be solved. The capacity of family members to resolve problems contributes to an overall spirit of harmony or dissonance present in the home. Attention to family atmosphere is important because high and consistent levels of tension related to unsolved difficulties is thought to be the single largest contributor to maladjustment in children.



A common pattern which creates distress in a marriage is one in which one spouse confronts conflict and the other blocks communication through withdrawal, sulking, stonewalling, flippancy, discounting or other methods of conflict avoidance.

One of the strongest predictors of divorce is the inability to solve problems. Contrary to popular belief, neither dissatisfaction reported in a marriage nor frequency of disagreements spawn failed marriages. Instead, styles of communication that inhibit problem solving spell trouble. A legacy of unresolved conflict may be the writing on the wall. Communication that relies heavily on blaming, placating, whining or sarcasm to express feelings leads to protracted discussions with less probability for reaching solutions. Researchers describe communication to be one of three important criteria, but the most pivotal in family functioning.

Family communication either strengthens or inhibits bonding and adaptation, two other important dimensions of family relationships.

It is easy to intuitively identify when we are having difficulty being understood or getting our point across. Similarly, we can often feel when we do not connect with another person’s interpretation of an experience. What is more difficult to understand is the relationship between our own communication and the potential for solving problems.

One way to know if your communication is effective in the family is to take note of how or if problems get discussed, and if they do what percentage of time a resolution occurs. Do topics of discussion reach closure, particularly when action needs to be taken? Pay attention to how you make decisions in the family and how this process feels to you and other family members.

One team of family researchers at Brown University describes 7 steps to problem solving:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Communicate with appropriate people about the problem
  3. Develop a set of possible alternative solutions
  4. Decide on one of the alternatives
  5. Carry out action required to guarantee action is taken
  6. Monitor to guarantee action is taken
  7. Evaluate effectiveness of your decision-making process

If communication skills are poorly developed, it will prove difficult to get past the second step of conveying your description of the problem to someone else. Likewise, unresolved conflict could be expressed in a miscarriage of action once it is decided (fifth step). However, if family members gestate a decision through to the final step of self- reflection, they are more likely to give birth to a feeling of team spirit, whatever the outcome.

How decisions are made in a family is often more crucial to positive feelings between family members than what is decided.

Below is an exercise in listening and empathy, the first step towards healthy communication. Family researchers have identified six areas of family communication, however listening to emotionally laden messages without automatically blocking the flow of a discussion is primary in laying a foundation for solving problems. For this reason, listening will take up the lion’s share of the discussion below.

The following discussion and exercises are intended to help stimulate thought and reflection on your recollection of childhood patterns of communication and problem solving and your current family’s “communication membrane”.

Every family is a unique culture. Adjust this information to your own values and needs. When applying it to your spouse, an attitude of curiosity and exploration of your family and how it operates may prove beneficial, as well as a realization that you are a team when it comes to making decisions together. Naturally, when you are applying it to your children you retain final decision making. In this way, family boundaries and roles remain clear of ambiguity .



Six Elements of Healthy Communication

  1. Listening:

    Childhood experience: Ask yourself if you were listened to as a child in your family, and if other family members listened to each other or not. This will give you an understanding of your own trust in being understood and the pressure you might feel around communication that is rooted in the past. Remember, it is never too late to develop skills, or take the time for listening that we did not learn or experience in childhood. Life is for learning. And now it is your turn as parents to decide what kind of family atmosphere you want to develop!

    Rate your overall childhood experience of feeling listened to in your family on the scale below. You may also rate your childhood experience as it relates to your relationship with your mother, father, or other family members separately, if you wish.

      almost always---mostly---usually---sometimes --seldom--almost never
    Present family experience: Ask yourself and members of your family to tell you whether they feel understood most of the time by others in the family, some of the time, almost never, etc. Use the same scale above to assist you. You may also want to ask, specifically if someone feels understood by individual members. If you do so, it is important to understand that it is common for children to feel more or less understood by different parents at different times, and this exercise should be done with full cooperation, knowledge and participation of all family members to ensure a spirit of camaraderie in understanding each other.

    It is particularly helpful to do with just your marital partner as a tool for assessing how each of you experiences the other.

    Remember that the goal is to understand the family member’s experience, not to judge their experience. Also, be aware of any self-criticism or judgment if you experience difficulty understanding someone’s experience in the beginning. Developing compassion for yourself is the first step in being able to develop a family atmosphere of empathy and trust.

    Developing your listening skill. Wherever you currently rate your experience of being listened to in your family, listening skills can always be improved. This is especially true during emotionally laden discussions when conflicts arise. The more practice, the easier it will be to voluntarily call upon a capacity to express yourself in a way that is non-blaming, and be able to listen to your partner’s experience without blocking communication.

    The more you use the techniques below, the easier and more quickly you will be able to get back on track when you do become defensive or attacking. Afterall, it is natural to become reactive in the course of daily living. However being able to get back on track, without losing large amounts of time to polarizing discussions will help you solve problems more effectively. And it will help you free up love for one another, following a short-lived but appropriate release of anger. If couples can express anger and resentments to one another without blaming or punishing, love is preserved and intimacy blossoms!

    Listening includes the ability to be attentive to the other person’s experience of what is being discussed. It also means being able to understand and empathize with their experience, even when you do not agree or have an opposite view. Showing empathy is crucial to your partner’s ability to hear your experience when it is your turn to describe it.

    Using the following sentence, fill in the blanks with your appropriate feelings, the description of behavior you are responding to, and your emotional interpretation of what the behavior means to you. When you fill in the blank for “imagined”, you may find that your feelings are partially rooted in past childhood experiences which may color the way you are receiving your partner’s message. This exercise offers an opportunity for clarification, including the possibility of separating past and present realities.

    I feel ________ when you _______ and I imagine _______. 

    For example: I feel anxious when you swear and I imagine you are about to lose control of yourself and hit me. Or: I feel tense when you swear and I imagine you will withdraw from being affectionate to me the rest of the evening.

    Your partner then should reflect back to you an accurate understanding of your feelings, without defending or explaining himself before he or she connects with you around being understood.

    For example: You feel anxious that my swearing will result in my hurting you physically. Is that right? You feel afraid that my swearing means that I won’t be loving to you the rest of the day. Did I get it?

    When you use this method of communicating around emotionally charged topics, you will be more likely to be understood because you are eliminating blaming your partner for how you feel. You are expressing your feelings without attacking the other person. This makes it easier for your partner to understand your feelings when they are different from their own. Using “I” statements also allows you to validate your own feelings. This eliminates the pressure for two people to see things exactly the same in order to feel connected or loved.

    Space for two people to experience the world differently decreases the possibilities of misinterpretation. And this kind of connecting allows people to reflect on the source of these feelings, sorting out what percentage of their feelings belong to their present partnership experience, and how much of it may relate to past childhood relationships. Because there is more space for feelings, the understanding can evolve more smoothly.

    For example: “ I know you’ve never hit me. I guess your anger triggers my experience of being hit by my brother when I was a kid.”

    When clarifications like the above can happen, partners will be more able to increase their capacity for receiving messages that carry strong emotions, (including anger) from their partner, without overreacting. The more we build tolerance for feelings, without responding with defensive blocking techniques such as withdrawal or blaming, the greater our ability is for closeness and intimacy. Trust is built through an experience of safety in being able to express powerful feelings without distorting communication.

    When you take the time to listen, you develop a sense of trust. The experience of being understood cannot be overestimated in its effect on soothing the other person, enabling them to then really listen to your experience, explanation or clarification. This is your best insurance that you will be heard when you begin to explain your viewpoint and explore what of your partner’s experience is true, and what is a misinterpretation of your behavior. These skills are necessary for deepening intimacy throughout the years of a marriage, and go a long way in beginning to resolve conflict.

    Setting aside 15 minutes each evening will be enough to begin increasing your listening skills with this exercise. You can take turns alternating days of being the listener with your partner if you like, so the exercise is easy to do. Even if you think you are too tired, you may find that receiving empathy can be rejuvenating. And being able to connect as the listener may give you a feeling of accomplishment and maturity which deepens your appreciation of not only your partner, but yourself!

  2. Speaking for yourself and not others: Children whose experiences are constantly explained by someone else may not develop their own sense of what their feelings or opinions are, much less be able to express themselves in the world. A developing sense of self includes speaking for yourself and not others, unless they are truly unable to do so (i.e. too young or too sick,etc.)

    Though children may not always be able to express themselves clearly, they will develop their ability to do so if given the opportunity. Valuing the expression of feelings, however, does not mean you are always in agreement. Nor do feelings negate consequences or discipline when it is required. However speaking for others can also contribute to involving others in an argument, inappropriately. When this happens, family communication can become particularly distressful.

    For example:

      Dad: “It’s cold in here. Put this shirt on Sam.”

      Mom: “It’s not cold in here. Sam doesn’t need that shirt.”

      Sam (age 12): “ I don’t want that shirt. It’s ugly! I’m fine. Leave me alone!”

    Children are less likely to become entangled in disagreements between parents if parents speak for themselves and request the same of their children.

    For example:

      Dad: “I’m cold. I’m going to get myself a shirt. Do you need one, Sam? How about you, Honey?” (directed to wife).

      Sam: “No thanks, Dad. I’m fine.”

      Mom: “I’m not cold either. Thanks.”


    Discuss with your partner: Did family members speak for each other in your childhood? Do members in your current family speak for themselves most of the time, (“I feel” vs. “You feel”) or is it common practice to assume you can represent others’ experiences in the family?

    Research on communication shows that when members commonly express feelings for others in the family, information is likely to be distorted and individuals experience difficulty being autonomous. The first example above also shows the potential for alienation to occur when parents repeatedly triangulate a child in their own differences.

  3. Self-disclosure: Being able to share your own feelings of resentment as well as love and appreciation are examples of sharing intimate feelings in the family. Feeling safe enough to share things that may be troubling requires that families do not expect perfection in people. Being human means that people may experience “unpopular” feelings in the family. But being able to express them will help ease the pain. In this way, families act as shock absorbers for one another. If self-disclosure is practiced, a family can be a safe place to retreat from the world, temporarily, while recovering from life’s ups and downs.

    Discuss with your partner: To what degree did you feel it was safe to express feelings in your family as a child? Evaluate how easy or difficult it is to share unpopular feelings with one another in your present family. Together you set the climate for family intimacy and sharing. This is your chance to decide what kind of family atmosphere you want to create!

  4. Clarity of the message: Whether a message is clearly communicated depends on how direct the communication is and if the verbal and non-verbal communication matches.

    Example (indirect): “It would be nice if sometimes a person were able to do something in this family without criticism.”

    The above message is indirect in many ways. It lacks clarity about who is sending the message, to whom the message is being sent, what it is that is being criticized, by whom, and what exactly is being asked for. Indirect messages tend to be dead-ended because it takes so much energy to ascertain what is being said and what should be responded to. These communications rarely lead to anything other than frustration.

    Example (direct): “ I feel hurt when you criticize my cooking every evening. Please tell me what you want to eat.”

    It is much easier to understand what the message is when it is clear and direct. The likelihood of some level of resolution of conflict between people increases.

    Nonverbal tone which does not match the content of the message can also be confusing, particularly to young children who understand tonality but don’t yet fully comprehend words.

    Example: Did you know I get (giggling) really angry when you (giggles) embarrass me by calling me names in front of your family?

    Even for adults, the nonverbal tone communicates a much weaker message, one that is not meant to be remembered, or taken seriously.

    Example: I feel really angry when you call me names in front of your family. It embarrasses me! A natural emphasis of tone on “angry” and” embarrasses” congruently communicates to the right hemisphere of the brain (which picks up tonality) that these feelings are important, to be taken seriously and remembered.

    Discuss together: What was the communication like between members of your family in childhood? Was it direct or indirect? Clear or ambiguous? Did nonverbal and verbal communication generally match, or were there incongruencies, double messages? Explore your experience in your present family. If necessary, you can research this by listening closely during the next week and writing down your observations about your family communication. Then come back the next week and share your experience with one another.

  5. Continuity: Tracking and staying on topic

    Researchers found that completing discussions of a topic during a conversation contributed significantly to healthy family communication. Discussions which allow for democratic expressions, opinions and sharing while staying on track enable children to learn the skills necessary to set and achieve goals. Critical thinking is a process that is learned in the family setting.

    Distractions that block follow through on a topic can take a variety of forms: irrelevant asides, changing topics midstream, interrupting the flow of discussion are all potential contributors to fuzzy thinking and potentially ineffective problem solving.

    However, a very interactive family may interrupt without damage to critical thinking and problem solving if they get back on track and carry a topic through to some sense of completion. Interruptions that add to the information needed or develop a topic may be invigorating as long as these interruptions are not a result of one person dominating the discussion.

    Topic changes or interruptions which are in the service of keeping one person center stage in the family result in one sided discussions which may meet the need for attention of one family member to the exclusion of staying either on the topic or allowing other members a chance to express themselves.

    Pay attention to discussions in your family. Ask yourself and your partner the following questions in relation to childhood family discussions and your own present family’s debates:

    1. Do topics reach natural closure or are there abrupt changes in topics that disrupt continuity?
    2. Is there equal air time for all members who have something to say about a topic?
    3. Do people disrupt the flow of conversation through topic changes? distractions? asides that pull attention away from completing thoughts or establishing a plan of action?
    4. Do interruptions abort continuation or closure on the topic, or does someone bring the topic back for completion?


  6. Respect and Positive Regard:

    Naturally the more you feel like you matter, the easier the flow of communication in a family. To treat one another with respect for feelings, even when we disagree has clearly obvious benefits. However, less obvious is whether for other reasons, people feel unimportant in the family.

    Younger siblings are often the most vulnerable to feeling unimportant in a family because of their developmental limits. For example, everyone else can do certain things, like ride a bicycle, but 3 year old Sam. His older sister Sarah who is 6 has already been to kindergarten and knows hundreds more things than he does. It is very easy for a younger child to see him or her self as not being as valuable a contributor to the family. It is important to identify ways he or she is unique even though they are unable to do as many things as the older members in the family! And it is important to take time to listen to youngsters who do not yet have the vocabularies or speed in self expression that their older sibs enjoy.

    Families with one girl and three boys, or one boy and three girls may find that the odd sexed sibling feels left out, instead of special. Even Moms who have a husband and three sons may feel left out in this way. Did you feel yourself an important member of your family in childhood? Ask your present family members about their sense of importance to the family. Respect for their feelings about their role in the family will be validating.

What is clear from the research is that when the “communication membrane” is healthy between family members, relationships are more likely to flourish. There is a smoother flow of emotions which may also allow our love to be more fully expressed and received.

It is my hope that this information may assist you on your journey as parents, with one another and with your children. As parents you are the leaders and the best source of authority on your own children and their needs. You are in the best position to know what really works. Whatever your childhood experience, you are the parents now! It is your turn to decide what kind of family you want to make together.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for,, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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