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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.


May. 25th, 2012 03:27 am (UTC)
Let me tell you a little story.

We were required, for a variety of reasons, to attend "speech therapy" classes. In Toronto, those are code for "ASD" classes, because all of the children there (there were 8) had been diagnosed ASD. It was interesting because they broke down the middle (they were between the ages of 4 and 6, and all were boys). Four of the boys were like my oldest son at that age - but less hyper and less frenetic; four of the boys were quiet, focused, and utterly silent.

For the quiet boys, the goal was to get them to engage in discussion.

My oldest, at the time, was 9 years old. He could, and did, engage in discussion - although the hour long inventory of the thing that was on his mind was also common, it was no longer the sole focus of his words.

One of the fathers of one of the four silent boys asked me how it was that my oldest could now engage in discussion like this - what had we done?

What we had not done was follow the instructions that were being given in the the very frustrating class.

And I said: In order for an ASD child - who has some social difficulties interacting with people, regardless - to want to talk to other people, he has to have incentive to talk at all. All four of these little boys had the things they were obsessing about - fire-trucks, trains, weather satellites and... I can't remember the last one.

But what I had noticed immediately in this class was that if these boys began to talk about the things that excited and engaged them they were immediately cut off. Because, of course, obsessive monologues are not conversation - and, worse, not normal.

I may have mentioned I hate that phrase.

This man's son was one of those four, and I said: We let our oldest son monologue. He was excited and he wanted to share. It did not make sense to us to cut him off every time he tried because if he had no incentive to engage, why would he bother? His obsessions were his only incentive; they were his joy and delight. Cut those off and...we guessed there would be silence. Did he know how to talk about things that didn't interest him? No. No, he didn't. But what was his incentive to start talking at all if he wasn't allowed to talk about the things that did?

As he got older, we were able to interrupt him. We were able to ask him to wait his turn. We were able to ask questions, and to shift parts of the monologue into something that resembled discussion. He was willing to do this at the beginning, because if he did, he would then be allowed to share what he really wanted to talk about.

What he learned was that talking could be fun. If he couldn't learn that at all, what was the point of talking? Why make the difficult effort? And as he grew accustomed to waiting, as he developed, he began to find some of the things we discussed interesting. He began to ask questions about topics that he had not introduced, because he understood on a basic level that talking could be … fun.

The father just looked at me (it was, of course, me, and I was perhaps a little more vehement than any other parent in the room generally got), and said, "You know, that never occurred to me."
May. 25th, 2012 03:44 am (UTC)
I do let him monologue at times. He can be redirected - usually - and is an excellent student getting top grades (thank goodness we have a wonderful school district with a small special needs high school - he would never survive in a full-sized high school.)

He is willing to talk about new things - he absolutely loves watching Science channel and Discovery channel and asks me when there's anything he doesn't understand (which is actually pretty rare) or tries to apply what they're talking about to our everyday life. I think the latest kick was supernovas, but I don't remember what he wanted me to do with one.

What he refuses to talk about is himself - not in any way, shape, or form. Not likes or dislikes and especially not his feelings. The only clues I get are when he explodes and then I have to try and figure out what I did in the last half hour or so that might have triggered it - it's not always the last thing before the explosion. If I guess correctly, he sometimes will at least give me a yes or no, but not always.
May. 25th, 2012 04:53 am (UTC)
What he refuses to talk about is himself - not in any way, shape, or form. Not likes or dislikes and especially not his feelings.

Ah. This is a totally different thing.

My oldest did not talk about his feelings, his likes, or his dislikes. In part, this is because he didn't have the words for them (when he was younger, and he was asked, by the woman evaluating him, how "joy" and "anger" were similar, he finally said: They both make your heart beat faster).

This did not mean, of course, that he didn't have any; he didn't have the tools to discuss them because he didn't have the words for them. In that, we were probably not as useful as the educational aide that worked with him for most of his grade two class.

I actually stopped writing the ASD-related posts because I got snowed under with the usual insane deadlines, so I'm not sure that I reached that point. I'll write that one for tomorrow, but the short story is: when he (eta: the educational aide) realized that we, as his parents, didn't particularly care if his Aspergers was directly addressed, he began to incorporate emotional words into their daily educational exercises. So, if he was playing Hangman with my son, he would use words like: friendship, trust, love, respect.

It was not something that had occurred to me at the time.

Even when he was older, at, say, thirteen, he did not like to discuss the things for which he had no language. It was a barrier. But...none of us are big "talk about your feelings" people. He would, as he got older, discuss things that upset him or confused him, because he at that point believed I could explain them in a way that would help him make sense of them.

But that was sort of a direct result of all those earlier discussions about computer games. He expected me to make sense, because in the early years, I had.

He still doesn't talk about things like that all that much. He listens to others talk about them, he assesses what he's heard, he sometimes brings up a point or two - but talking about his feelings to us isn't a priority for him.

HOWEVER... he is perfectly capable of talking about them with his girlfriend. They are relevant to both of them in a way that they weren't relevant to his relationship with us, if that makes sense?

Edited at 2012-05-25 04:54 am (UTC)
May. 25th, 2012 05:32 am (UTC)
Girlfriend - there's a scary thought - my son is 16, so it will probably pop up sooner rather than later.

I think what bothers me the most is that no matter how many times I tell him I can't fix or change something if I don't know it bothers/annoys/hurts him, he won't tell me when something is.

Thank you for 'listening' and for the explanations of how you and your family got through them.

OT: Will you be coming to Chicon? If so, stop by the art show and say Hi. I'm running it, so not likely to get out of there all week.

May. 29th, 2012 09:45 pm (UTC)
OT: Will you be coming to Chicon? If so, stop by the art show and say Hi. I'm running it, so not likely to get out of there all week.

We (we being husband and I, not parasites and I) will definitely be coming to Chicago, and will definitely drop by the Art Show (we would do that anyway, but now that I know you’re running it, will make sure to say hi :))