Relationship Subtext: Reading Between the Lines

Knowing what subtext is and when it is being used empowers you to know the meaning behind the words, rather than assuming people say what they mean.


Were you ever taught that it is rude and selfish to ask for what you want? Often the message we are given is, don’t ask, don’t desire, simply be grateful for what you have. For many of us, this impelled point of view does not go away as we grow to adulthood. This tends to result in a lot of indirect communication where people, who rather than clearly asking for what they want, say one thing but mean something else. This is a little thing commonly referred to as subtext.

Have you ever been clear on what you wanted in a particular situation, but rather than stating what that is, you say what you think you are supposed to say to achieve that result? And then you talk around what you actually want, saying what you think you should say, while expecting the person else to pick up on what you really mean and then deliver to you the desired outcome. Subtext at its best.

So why is it helpful to understand subtext? And how does that help you or your relationship? The dictionary defines subtext as “to weave under; to work in below.” It is one of the primary ways we create confusion in communication. Knowing what subtext is and when it is being used empowers you to know the meaning behind the words, rather than assuming people say what they mean.

Here are my top 3 tips on how to use subtext to your advantage.

1. Have fun with it.

One day my ex-partner came home from shopping and said, “Look what I bought!” Not hearing the subtext in her words, I said, “Ok.” I heard it as a statement: “I went shopping.” But there was more to it that at first glance I did not see. The more to it was, “I am very excited about the things I bought when shopping and you should be excited too!” In missing the subtext, I couldn’t see that she was trying to contribute to me by buying things I could use in the kitchen.

We both realised I hadn’t got the message clearly so we playfully chose to have a do over. She went outside and came back in and this time I said, “Oh my god! Look at all that amazing Tupperware. This is the best thing ever!” And we laughed.

Choosing to recognise the subtext and play with it, rather than ignore it or fight against it, was a contribution to each of us. Subtext can be fun and playful! Rather than making it right or wrong, what if you could have fun with it?

2. What is the real question here?

Have you ever had someone ask you, “What are you doing on Saturday night?”. And how often do you launch into an answer of the direct question? Was that what they were truly asking or did they have something else in mind when asking the question?

You could pause and ask yourself, “What is the real question here?” When you ask this, you can become aware of what is really going on. For example, you may realise they don’t actually want to know what you are doing on Saturday night. They have something they want you to do and have not directly asked. Knowing this provides you with the information of what is truly going on and then you can respond accordingly.

3. Practice clear communication.

If you are someone who uses subtext and you get that it isn’t really helping you have everything you desire in life, you can change it. Subtext is based on a fear of judgments and conclusions that make us afraid to call something what it really is. Learning how to be more open and have direct conversations ultimately empowers us to establish relationships that will allow us to be who we truly are in our lives.

If saying what is true for you is not something you usually choose, it may take some time to strengthen that muscle. Go easy on yourself. Start to ask, “What IS true for me?” You may not have allowed yourself to know. As you ask and become clear, you can start putting words to it. It may take some time. Don’t judge yourself for the time it takes. It’s simply one choice and then another and then another.

Subtext exists in the world and people will continue to use it when communicating so you might as well have fun with it. When you are enjoying it, you are not at the effect of it and then you can use it to your advantage. How? Just choose.

More by Brendon Watt, here on GMP:

Creating a Conscious Relationship

How many great relationships do you see out there?

I Expected To Be Single Forever

An excerpt from the book Relationships: Are you sure you want one?



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Have you read the original anthology that was the catalyst for The Good Men Project? Buy here: The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood


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