“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw
On our way home from church Sunday afternoon, John asked where I wanted to eat. We were close by a cafeteria we used to frequent, so I mentioned stopping by to see if the place looked clean and the food fresh.
John named a few places as we passed by, but they were closed. He asked a second time where I wanted to eat. I again mentioned the cafeteria. He tried to turn into an Italian restaurant, but he couldn’t get over in traffic. The third time he asked where I wanted to eat, I named the cafeteria … again.
“We’re going to the cafeteria. I’ve ignored you three times, but I’m not doing it a fourth time,” he said.
Fifteen years ago was our first documented (by me) case of communication that hadn’t taken place. We stayed with our children at a motel in the mountains. Neither of us remembers the name of the place, just that it had bright pink floats drifting in the pool. We planned to head to a new town the following day. When John asked where I wanted to spend the next night, I said, “I’d love to stay here and enjoy another day of the pool.”
An hour later, he asked again where I wanted to spend the next night. He didn’t want to stay at the “pink float motel” because he thought the room was pricey, but he didn’t communicate that.
“I don’t care. Wherever you want to stay is fine with me,” I said.
“I wish instead of always saying you don’t care, you’d help decide sometimes,” he said.
My head snapped and so did my voice.
“I told you where I wanted to stay tonight,” I said.
We splashed around the next day in the pool. John hearing me doesn’t mean I always get my way, but it does mean I get it sometimes.
I reflected on why I didn’t learn from our pool experience. My guess is it’s because I’ve not felt worthy of having my way unless it agrees with others.
John, on the other hand, was used to getting his way. It worked to his advantage (in a way) that confrontation made me as uncomfortable as did pushing for what I wanted.
He says he turned into a “steamroller.” We can mostly laugh about him steaming ahead and me getting steamed up. My outbursts seemed to come out of nowhere, but actually they were from communication that hadn’t taken place.
I’ve mentioned before about blaming John for this sort of thing. I thought, He could change. He could care enough to take care of me. He could be attentive and listen.
He said I could change, I could take care of myself, and I could speak up.
We were both right. We could have done those things, but we didn’t. Anyhow, we came by it honest, our communication that hadn’t taken place.
How’d I expect him to show up in shining armor when he fought hard not to hear anything that remotely sounded like criticism?
How’d I expect to show up belting out Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” when all I knew was giving into others so they’d love me?
I wanted John to do the changing because I convinced myself (and tried to convince him) it would be easier for him to hear me than it would be for me to speak up. I waited until it was painfully obvious what a counselor said, “The person in the most pain is the one who has to change.”
As rational as it sounded, I ignored her advice and pitched big fits to be heard. The impasse, no matter how unfair or maddening, is that when something’s “working” for a person, like John getting his way, they are not likely to give it up without a fit of their own. Of course, communication that hadn’t taken place wasn’t actually working for him or our marriage, but he was in less pain, so, at least in the beginning, being heard was mine to change.
Here are three tips John and I practice to assure communication has taken place now:
- We make “I” statements like “I feel (insert a feeling) when you (insert what the person did that made you feel that way).” Here’s an example, “I feel frustrated when I don’t think you’ve heard me.”
If you’re rolling your eyes, I understand. I paid a lot of money early on in our marriage to practice these statements in front of a counselor, knowing that when I got home, there was no way I was telling John how I felt unless he asked. It was easier, even though not beneficial, to talk about each other and that’s what we did for a long time.
- We stop droning on for hours about the progress we want to make (for example, “I want us to learn to get along and talk and listen and enjoy each other’s company and have fun and travel and get together with friends and … ) and we stop provoking to the point that one of us flies out of the room and slams a door (for example, “There you go again talking about how bad things are … ”). When we give into these sorts of distractions and reactions, we’re doomed to patterns like numbing out, blaming each other, nurturing resentments, and lapsing into despair.
Instead of droning and provoking, we ask, “Do you mind being quiet for a few minutes and letting me talk?” or, because fear has a big influence on poor communication, we ask, “What are you afraid of?”
- We get in touch with how we feel. As simplistic as this sounds, I grappled with the complexity of emotions when a family member said she thought I was angry, but then recognized I was fearful. I seldom felt angry, but I acted like it. It’s challenging to identify our feelings, as well as emotional to share them with those closest to us because, although we care about each other, we also hurt each other.
I hope you “heard” something helpful in this post that will help you be heard. If you have tips of your own, we’d love for you to share them in the comments.
In This Together,