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On Communication

I said in my previous post that I had two things I wanted to talk about: help, and love as endurance.

People who are familiar with my writing in other venues will probably not be shocked to know that I now have three things to write about. The third thing - communication - comes courtesy of my husband. My husband is my external editor, and I often run things past him before I post them. He's not a censor, but he will often point out ways in which my words might be misinterpreted.

Yesterday's blog was given the immediate okay, but as I was cleaning up the multiple typist typos, he said something I've been thinking about ever since: He was incredibly grateful that I was able to clearly communicate my needs and the source of my pain in our early arguments.

I haven't thought much about those arguments since that first year, because any new couple has arguments. Any two people who are going to be living together as themselves are going to step on things they didn't know existed, as they learn to navigate the shoals of each other's expectations and needs. It's almost impossible not to cause pain, because as we open up to each other, we're vastly more vulnerable than we were when we were in our more 'social among acquaintances' mode, and although we profess to love each other, we do not yet know each other.

Learning is hard. Learning when we have automatic responses about what's 'normal' or 'reasonable' is even harder, because we have the usual insecurities about ourselves, and we have the sense that we should be a certain type of person -- even if we're not. If we insist, in private, that we are that reasonable, normal person, but still have the emotional reflexes of some entirely different person, we are sending vastly mixed signals.

One of the words that left our vocabulary upon advent of the oldest son was 'normal'. 'That's not normal' was - and is - a phrase I grew to hate. But the ability to ditch it entirely started before that point, in the early years of our relationship.

I cannot remember, at this point, what I was upset about, but in our first year of living together something minor had upset me. I knew that my husband was rational and reasonable, and that I should be rational and reasonable, so I didn't say anything. But…I was still upset, and instead of discussing whatever it was, I said nothing - and incubated the anger instead.

By the end of the week, everything made me angry. I think I finally flipped out about where he'd put his shoes when he got in from work (itself not a terribly reasonable thing). This surprised him, of course, but he'd known for the week that something was bothering me.

The reason I remember the argument is the resolution. I wish I remember what it was that had first upset me - because I think it would be instructive. Sadly, it's gone. The resolution, however, continues to this day. He said: "I don't need you to be reasonable or normal. I'm not with you because you're any of those things. If something is bothering you, it's something I have to learn to understand and deal with because it's you I'm living with. If I've done something that's hurt you, I want you tell me right away so we can work it out then." (And not, you know, have a week of me stewing in an effort not to say anything. I am not famously reserved in my anger.)

We have a sense that love = knowledge. Therefore, if someone loves me, they will understand me. I think this comes from our lives as very young children, where our parents, who loved us, mostly did.

But this doesn't work as well for two adults. Do I want to be understood? Yes. Yes, I do. Did I expect my husband to understand me because he loved me? Yes and no.

No. Not on an intellectual level. On an emotional level, yes. So there was always the tension between these two states: the certainty that no one is a mind-reader and the feeling that if he loves me, how could he miss something so important?

But he was open to discussion. And boy, that was a good thing. What we learned was that even the phrase "I'm hurt" has a weight and meaning that is entirely contextual to our individual lives. He came to the table because he honestly cared and he thought we could work through things. I came to the table believing that if I could make him understand, we would not be in this place again. What I had to do was explain myself clearly enough. I had to get past "I'm hurt" to understand what had hurt me, why it had hurt me, and what the mechanisms of my own pain were.

Off the table were things like "well you shouldn't feel that way". It was irrelevant, because clearly, I did. What was relevant in that small space was just the people we actually were. But I remember we spent six hours one night working through something. Because I explained it, and…no lightbulb went on. I knew that what I'd said did not make sense to him. He could follow the words, of course - but he couldn't follow the thread of the emotional effect to see why I was upset, because in the same circumstance, he wouldn't be; he couldn't turn the words into a set of causal circumstances on which he could act. He was not me, and couldn't think like me.

I'm a writer.

I've written scenes which I know should have a certain weight, a certain emotional resonance, a certain feeling.

I've sometimes discovered that those scenes don't do what I intended, and I trash them, and start again, because writing is, in part, about communication. I won't reach everyone, no matter how well I write--but in the case of this type of discussion, I only have to reach one person, and he is sitting across the table from me.

I've seen arguments in which the base statement, when it fails to sink in, is repeated at louder and louder volumes, because the person who has made the statement has explained. They know what they feel and they know what they mean and they've explained it in actual, honest words, and the person is therefore not listening. I've actually had those arguments. This type of communication was a personal evolution.

Sitting across the table, I realized that the person was listening. I had explained. I had explained clearly and cogently. I had been honest about the pain, and why I felt it. But our experiences were so different in so many ways, that the explanation made no sense to him. I could have repeated the words, but since the words hadn't worked the first time, and since he was still sitting there and waiting, I had to revise.

I had to revise, the way I will revise when I write a scene that doesn't work the first time out. I had to take all the same elements, the same characteristics, the same focal points--but frame them in an entirely different way. I had to use different analogies. Different metaphors.

I could not have done this if he was not willing to sit across that table until I found the right words. I had to have faith that if I could make this clear, we would never have this problem again.

And in the same way as that early argument above, I can remember the process, but not the reason for it; I honestly cannot remember what that fight was about. Once we work through something, it lets go of me.

I think I went through twenty iterations, trying to find an analogous situation in his life, a set of circumstances that he might face that would cause the him the pain I was feeling. Because in some ways, pain is a common experience. The things that cause pain are different. I had to explain my pain in terms that he could grasp and apply to himself, because if he could, he would understand, and he could build from that.

It was an interesting - and important - exercise. I had to accept that telling him how I felt would not give him the tools to avoid causing the same pain. I had to break down how I felt - for myself, and examine its essential structure - in order to rebuild an explanation that was general enough and specific enough, that it would reach him.

Conversely, he had to sit there, while I was angry (at him) and in pain, and while I struggled with words and with - yes, sadly - frustration. He doesn't have the temper I do; he doesn't really have a temper that is in any way demonstrative. It was not easy for him either, and I realized - with effort - that it wasn't. He believed, sitting there, asking questions which clearly showed I had still not made my point, that there was an explanation and that with work, with effort, he could understand it.

And then, finally, at about five and a half hours, his eyes rounded, because I had finally come up with an analogy that worked for him. I wanted to cry. He could follow the thread of the explanation from start to finish.

This was work, on his part. It was work on mine. Communication is not, and was not, as simple as honesty - but without honesty, the attempt couldn't have been made.

And I think the most important points about communication were these:

1. He accepted that he had caused me pain, and accepted that it was valid. Other people's opinions on its validity were irrelevant because those other people weren't part of the relationship.

2. I accepted that there was no intent to cause pain. I was in pain, but it was not an act of malice on his part. Causing him pain in return would not be an act of justice - it would be an act of malice.

3. We were always, always, on the same side. The only 'win' condition was understanding. Everything else was a loss.

He had, of course, already apologized - but apology is not prevention, and we both knew it.

Comments

seabream
May. 24th, 2012 07:16 am (UTC)
Mmm. I greatly admire your ability to clearly break down certain types of social processes, and I'm thankful that you do so in publicly accessible forums. In particular, the way you construct explanations that are "general enough and specific enough" that the nuances and caution that need to be applied in situations similar to those being described, is significantly more useful than what many writing on the same issue do. I mostly agree with your thoughts as I understand them.

Not to make this about me, but there are relevant expansions from personal experience, or those of acquaintances, that I hope are okay to make. I admit the possibility that I'm misreading what you wrote, and thus making unwarranted qualifications. If so, my shame and apologies. I've only read it four times, and my sleep wake schedule has been unusual for me for the past week, but if I do my usual thing of waiting until I think I'm really ready, it might be next year.

While the straight "well you shouldn't feel that way", is problematic, and not useful, one also doesn't want to say that people's thoughts, feelings, and reactions should not be examined, and through examination, change, if they are amenable, and if it makes them and the relationship more whole, just because they're their own person and not these other people. It's a thing one does for instance, in anger management, addiction treatment, with obsessive personalities, with depression. It needs to happen sometimes between family members or friends around issues where the implications are wide enough to draw in whole swaths of other social interactions - like religious beliefs, or coming out queer (It's maybe on my mind more than usual as I'm halfway through this year's InsideOut LGBT film festival. Modern filmic conventions being what they are, it isn't the best medium for long involved conversations. The ways that the storytelling manages to work its way around not having offspring say to their parents that their being trans or gay is not about being disrespectful, and really, kicking them out of the house is not truly an act of love, is actually kind of interesting, but also makes me cringe.). I know that you didn't wholly exclude those, but I thought it important to mention that there are times when it isn't wrong to say that it would be healthy to evaluate one's perspective about something they feel strongly about, that one doesn't have to feel that way, and could they please consider it. It's often ineffective, but that doesn't make it not worthwhile occasionally.
msagara
May. 24th, 2012 07:54 am (UTC)
There are many ways to communicate, and not all of them are verbal. I think in words; my husband thinks in words. This makes the primary form of thought and interaction at least similar. We don't use words the same way, but we think in words.

There are some couples for whom words are difficult, and some halves of couples for whom words are difficult, especially when they're emotional. The live and parse things far more intuitively.

But in the example above - and it's only one - the assumption I make is that the goal of the discussion/argument is to further understanding.

In the case, for instance, in which a parent is absolutely horrified and enraged when their child comes out (and I saw a lot of this in high school), there is no such goal. It's not the same type of discussion; it's not a case in which there's a concerted effort to be on the same side.

Sometimes time changes that. Sometimes seeing that your children have not destroyed their lives by their decisions will also change that. People don't like change; many people find it threatening, and it takes time to absorb and deal with all of the assumptions and anger, and to process them, accept them, and open up.

Sometimes this never happens.

If my husband were an entirely different person - if he were, for instance, one who said "this isn't a problem for me - so it's your problem and you have to learn how to deal with it", and that was the extent of the discussion, we wouldn't be together, because we would not be compatible. His starting point was "this isn't a problem I would have, but if it is causing you pain, it is a problem for me, because I don't want to cause you pain."

Ummm, I may have misinterpreted the point you were trying to make, though. I am assuming that you are saying that sometimes we need to examine - and possible let go of - our feelings and positions in order to compromise. I can see cases in which that's true, but I think it's part of the process.

There are certainly things I had to examine and let go of; there are at least as many things that he examined in the same way. But I had to know - for myself - which was which. There were some things I let go of (my husband cannot be on time to save his life, and I was raised in a household where I was grounded for a week for being 5 minutes late) - but the decision was, and had to be, mine.