Relationships: The Role of the Hidden Message

Good relationships are at the core of a happy life. If you are dissatisfied with your life, one of the tasks you and your therapist face is to explore the true nature of your relationships (parents, spouse/lover, friends, children, boss, etc.) past and present. The "true nature" is not necessarily what appears on the surface. We often "make" relationships work by adapting ourselves to them. For example, we may learn to ask for as little as possible from a depressed parent, or not to challenge an angry spouse. Over time, these responses become second nature, and we forget that we are being reactive. As a result, we may feel dissatisfied, but we don't know why.

Just as the "true nature" of relationships may not be what appears on the surface, so to, the "true nature" of communication may be disguised. Hidden messages are sent and received in all relationships. Hidden messages are those that are delivered "between the lines," verbally and non-verbally. They can be positive or negative, affirming or destructive. Often, these messages are more powerful than the ones directly spoken.

Let me give you a common example of what I mean by "hidden message." I'm sure you know people who, whenever you present a situation that has been troubling you, respond: "This is what you should do..." and proceed to describe how you should solve your problem. On the surface this advice appears to be a helpful response (and indeed sometimes it is). But there also may be an hidden message. What might the hidden message be from the advice giver? There are a number of possibilities:

  1. Look at me---I am so smart!
  2. Just do this and stop bothering me; I have troubles of my own.
  3. Your situation makes me anxious; if I tell you what you should do, I'll feel less anxious.
  4. I love you and I'm trying to be helpful.
  5. All or some of the above.

As you can see, communication between two human beings is a complicated affair. While a message may appear to be straight-forward on the surface, underneath it may be constructive, destructive, or both. A skilled therapist is often needed to identify the hidden messages that fly back and forth between two people. This is especially true in couples therapy.


The hidden messages received as children, both positive and negative, have far reaching and powerful effects. Our sense of self and sometimes even our life goals are strongly influenced by these messages. They are deeply woven into the fabric of who we are and what we want, and they impact the kinds of relationships we choose later in life. How does this happen? Let me give an example.

Consider a child who's parents rarely "heard" or valued what he/she was saying. While the parents were able to repeat their child's words back (and on the surface may have appeared to be empathic), they rarely paused to think about the meaning of those words from the child's perspective and savor his or her unique experience of the world. Perhaps the parent was more interested in sharing their thoughts and feelings because they desperately needed to be heard themselves, or, alternatively, they were too stressed or unhappy to listen. Either way, the hidden message to the child is: "Your 'voice' is not important. " Or, in the most severe circumstances: "You have no voice--you barely exist."

What happens when such a child grows up and looks for adult relationships? Here are two possible scenarios. The first is that the person will chronically be unable to hear what is at the heart of their spouse's/lover's communication--instead they will be chronically focused on being "heard' themselves. The person is "starved" for attention, and there is little to spare for anyone else. Interestingly, such a person may not realize that their needs supersede everyone else's. In fact, they may view everyone else as getting too much and themselves, too little. They may become just like the parent or parents who could not listen (see Voicelessness: Narcissism for more on this type of person.)

Alternatively, a person from this background might constantly seek out lovers who are similar to his/her parents, people who cannot "hear." As a result, the person receives the same message, "your voice is not important," over and over again. Why would a person want to put themselves back in a situation that was so unsatisfying? Two reasons: first, "not being heard" feels familiar. And second, there is a continued wish to make someone who doesn't "hear" hear, someone who doesn't value anyone, value them (see Little Voices and Why Do Some People Choose One Bad Relationship After Another? for more on this type of person.)

Unfortunately, many adults are ruled by hidden messages from childhood. A therapist, skilled in "between-the-lines" communication can expose them and loosen their hold. This is one of the values of psychotherapy.

About the author: Dr. Grossman is a clinical psychologist and author of the Voicelessness and Emotional Survival web site.

next: "Better Communication": The Great Myth of Couples Therapy

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, October 14). Relationships: The Role of the Hidden Message, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 15 from

Last Updated: March 29, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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