ughhh…..this is so frustrating…..why do I keep on finding myself being upset at one thing or another….next thing you know, both of us are upset and then there is no talking for the day. I feel as if I don’t remember what bliss is, or what happiness means. Why do I keep on finding myself in this rut?? I try to be patient, I try to put myself in other people’s shoes to see how they may be looking at an issue, and yet over and over again, I keep on finding myself at the place I began…and still feeling lost. I wish life weren’t so miserable.
“You don’t understand me.”
“We have nothing to talk about.”
“I try talking to him and he just shuts me out. How can I make him talk?”
“This conversation is over.”
Anyone could sense there is a communication problem here and most common suggestion is keep the communication channels open, don’t be judgmental and accusatory, have patience on and on… We all have tried communicating with our partners or dear ones and have felt at some point or another the communication is not going through and we are stuck in a rut. Some of us have even tried starting with “I” sentences, focusing on how “I” feel due to other person’s actions still nothing happens and rather we start feeling it is becoming “I’ has all the problems. The two questions that emerge are: We are not talking because the communication is bad? Or the communication is bad because the relationship is bad? This further leads to other questions our partner is not listening to us because we are not communicating effectively or because of what we are talking about, his/her anger or what?
Communication it self seems so confusing at times that we may feel tired of working on our relationships due to these communication ruts. A part of us wants to work on getting our message across effectively and the other part of us will tell us, enough I am entitled to relax and let the things be the way they are. Yes, it is really confusing. At times we may not want to talk about things that make us uncomfortable or find difficult to talk about because not talking about them gives us an illusion that things are better than they seem to be. Everyone has communication problem at one point or another in their intimate relationships but the issue here is if this communication problem is fixable or it is relationship destroyer.
Mira Kirshenbaum, in her book Too Good to Leave Too Bad to Stay distinguishes two types of communications, alien communication and crazy communication.
Alien Communication: She defines alien communication as that arising from the intrinsic differences of two people like, differences in gender, class, caste, religion etc. The most common fallacy she suggests is the over emphases of male-female differences in their social psychology like that of Men are From Mars and Women are from Venus. I fully agree with her premise because the whole impetus of human existence even before the birth is to create and magnify these differences. For example, a girl child is dressed in pink frocks as opposed to a boy in the blue kneeker suits to accentuate differences while they still exhibit same characteristics like crying when hungry and wet; it will be years later their biological bodies will gain differential reproductive characteristics. The market, media and every day living is so engrossed in denying similarities between gendered bodies and hell bent at hyper differentiating the differences that humanity is divided into two polar opposites men and women, haves and have nots…, instead of humans. If there are intrinsic differences then communication should be a bridge to eliminate this gap called differences. If the bridge is broken do we repair it or we just sit there and watch the chasm grow broader because the differences are intrinsic. Are they really so? Here is an example of alien talk:
A: I am scared the house can catch fire.
B: Then do something about it. Begin with clearing up the clutter.
A is thinking I don’t want you to tell me what to do; I want you to understand that I am scared.
B: The market is not good, I am afraid I may lose the job.
A: Yeh, I understand instead start looking for other options.
B is thinking I don’t want you to tell me what to do, I know what I have to do. I want you to acknowledge that I am scared.
A: Weather is beautiful today.
B: Don’t expect me to take you out. I am too tired.
A telling his/her self , I just acknowledged the weather I was not expecting anything from him/her. It is impossible to open one’s mouth in my partner’s presence.
A: Wao, they have been married for four years and they have taken six vacations.
B: You should have married someone who would have left his family for you.
A is thinking, I just said something appreciative about this couple why is my partner acting defensive.
Instead of gender identifying names I prefer using alphabets to make the point that it could be either a man or a woman experiencing the range of emotions just because they are humans and they have learned it that way. It is not about genders the communication breaks when we start putting people in the boxes called F or M and start expecting them to behave in a particular manner.
Crazy Communication: It is a communication pattern that uses confusing, vague, misleading and misconceived words and gestures that make us crazy. You are not able to make out why the other person is saying what they are saying. You say something and their response makes no sense rather you feel hurt. If they say something you feel they are asking you to do something for them and when you ask them they deny it. The tell tale sign of crazy communication is when it is going on it is hard to know what the other person is saying and why they are saying it.
Making assumptions about one’s partner’s ordinary actions like on the way from porch Anita stopped to talk to a neighbor, her partner saw it from the kitchen window now he is thinking- what is she talking about? She is definitely complaining about me. Now he is suspicious Anita might have told her neighbor that he is been acting up lately. The crazy communication has already started but no one knows it yet. As soon as Anita walks in and he asks her “So you were telling her about what I did this morning?” Instead of asking her how was her day or how is she feeling he attacks her. Anita could easily say what she was talking about but she is angered because she feels mistrusted thus she snaps back is it worth sharing that you yelled at me or hit me etc. This communication could have taken numerous forms but this one particular is so crazy with no direction and content that chasm between both is widening. Agreed here the communication is bad but there is something else beneath the bad communications that is making the communication bad.
Communication Killers: Taboo Topics
There are some issues we all are sensitive about and do not want to talk about. The things one does not want to talk about are often taken off the table as soon as the discussion starts. Taking off the table the topics of importance kills the communication because in a relationship it is not about what makes me comfortable but what is important for both of us and the relationship itself. Is there are a consistent pattern to your communication with your partner that you feel he/she snubs any of your attempts to raise a topic or question that is important to you? May be you are not even aware of it. Here are few examples how it is done:
1) Directly and Openly: I do not want to talk about it.
2) Less directly and openly: “you say something and he/she says “so what about that.” Next thing you know is you both are talking about something else that is not even remotely related to what you began with.
3) Threatening: I don’t want to be in this relationship because you keep pushing me to talk about X. “I have told you this conversation is over.”
4) Disguise it into emotional abuse: making you seem somehow stupid or weird or being wrong for even mentioning certain things that are important to you. Like Khamoshi wrote in one of her comments how her spouse makes her feel petty for raising the issue about doing his share of chores.
5) Leading on with politeness: The other person will acknowledge your concern, “Oh, I never thought about it like that, I need time to think about it.” And that time never comes.
If you recognize any of these styles of communication in your conversation repeatedly, most of all if you feel all your attempts to communicate are rejected over and over again and hereon you feel discouraged to even bring up the topic again you are dealing with communication deadlock. It is not a deadlock if your partner is not aware of what they are doing and they stop doing it when you point it out to them. But if he/she is making you feel wrong, bad, guilty for bring that topic again it is a problem. This consistent shutting off makes you mad initially but over time you become numb. Early in the marriage I would raise the topic of savings and annually giving a lump sum to his parents instead of monthly payments because it is more noteworthy and it begets interest. He would just shut me off by saying I need not tell him how to do it. He would send them money monthly and then buy them expensive gifts on all festivals and birthdays finally leaving none for us to save. When his credit took a nose dive he wanted me to counsel him and manage his finance by that time I was so numb that it didn’t matter to me anymore.
Initially it was extremely hard to detect the ways he would take off the topics from the table. Later it became even harder to point out that he was actually doing it. The possibility of talking about how things are taken off the table becomes harder and harder that is what kills a relationship than a bad communication. Following are the examples of how topics are taken off the table:
- You want to talk about lack of display of affection during the day because by night you already feel rejected to participate in love making. He vehemently accuses you have having wanton desires and vicious designs etc. that you don’t feel like bringing up that topic ever again.
- Every time you talk about something he/she sighs, changes the subject, flips channels on the remote start making phone call or gets up and leaves. It is like doing anything to move away or shut you up. I was so numbed in the relationship when few times he initiated a discussion about our future I would just sigh and find an excuse to leave the room. I did not envision a future with him as I was living one day at a time.
- Both of you are working hard but are not able to save money and time for the relationship. The only way to salvage the situation is to make the relationship a priority but when ever you initiate this topic he/she reasons hard work should be a reason enough to believe that he or she is committed to solve the relationship problems.
- You both have reached a consensus that giving constructive feed back to one another will strengthen the relationship. But when you make a suggestion your partner becomes defensive or starts a counter attack. You are scared to give a feed back thus making suggestions is off limits.
- You divided chores and your partner is doing a lousy job. You want to make a suggestion but he/she refuses to talk about it and acts so miserable that you feel it is a big hassle to even talk about it. That is a problem issue.
- Your partner sits to hear what you want to say but refuses to listen to what you are saying. You keep talking for an hour but he/she refuses to let anything into their head. Next time you’ll feel it is not worth talking to a wall.
- You voice a need or a problem you are facing and your partner tells you what is wrong with you for having that issue/concern. Like , I was pregnant and we had not disclosed to anyone. I wanted to rest between the cooking sessions when his parents were visiting us. Instead of being helpful he offered he declare it to his family when I was not yet ready or I just suck up and finish the job. Thereon my personal comfort was a topic off the table because I would be accused of selfishness. These putdowns can be of general nature or specific, example- you all women act like that, you got that from your mother/sister, it runs in your family etc.
- You see your partner after a long day and you want to share the difficulties you had at home with the plumbing and children. He listens for five minutes and says he is done and his mother managed everything without ever bothering his father why can’t you be more industrious. Thus the topics concerning your day are off limits.
These are just few examples to detect how topics are made off the table. We may not know how topics fly of the table but we definitely feel something is amiss in the communication. When we play back the whole conversation in our minds we realize how cleverly our partners have taken the topics that matter to us off the table. The truth is “the more successful your partner is at taking things off the table, the better he/she is at making sure you don’t know that they are doing it.”
According to Kirshenbaum’s findings it is a good sign:
- if your partner’s taking things off the table weakens in response to your efforts to put things on the table.
- if the more important something is to you, the less likely your partner is to take it off the table.
- if there’s only one or two hot-button issues that your partner takes off the table.
IT IS A DEAL BREAKER if your partner constantly and unyieldingly prevents you from talking about things those are important to you, so that you have a sense of being shut down and shut up. You are facing a destructive problem that will not get better by itself. The best example I see is of bollywood super duper hit Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Ghum, the family patriarch just shuts of his wife and controls things around the home with his eyes. By the end of the movie she voices her suffocation . Along with the director the whole nation is going gaga about the family values; snubbing your partner off.
If you feel your partner is basically fair but needs some self awareness next time he/she tries to take things off the table try pointing out to him/her. Like, “when ever I try to bring up the topic of taking a vacation by ourselves and not visiting your parents for a change (or what ever the issue is) you get so upset that I feel I am not even permitted to bring it up.”
May be your partner will take a clue and change or may be he/she will find another way to make it impossible for you to talk about what is important to you. You have got your answer you need to see professional help before you make other important decisions about this relationship.
May be You Can’t Take No for an Answer
But be aware may be you are a person who cannot take no for an answer. Such as, you have been asking your partner for something you consider important, he/she logically explains you why it is not possible but you would not give up. Like, you want him/her to consent for a renovation; he/she explains clearly there is no provision in the budget for next two years. Here the discussion should be over for next year or so but the issue will remain open for you until you get what you want and it can even be for ever.
Communication Deadlock is the Root of All Other Problems
How are you going to fix this communication deadlock if you can’t even talk about things that your partner keeps pushing off the table? It makes you mad and miserable when ever you try to raise the issue. Airing your concerns is the oxygen every relationship needs in order to breathe and survive. If you feel your partner blocks your attempts to give feedbacks by getting hurt, angry, counter attacking you and your side of the family or friends or even refusing to listen to you; he/she is sending you a strong message “I do not care if you feel good in this relationship.”
It is the impossibility of communication that makes the relationship bad not the bad communication topics in them self.
Prerequisites of Communication
Feeling safe that there will be no repercussions and I will still be loved:
Intimate communication essentially means revealing something very personal, information that is not shared with everyone. It is sort of getting emotionally naked. Intimate relationships offer us a space where we can divulge our secrets, fears and fantasies without a fear of judgment and repercussions. Feeling safe to be able to become vulnerable is the basic requirement of intimate relationships. If your relationship is more about hiding and distance than openness and intimacy then your relationship is not a safe space for you. You are living in fear of being hurt if you reveal something about you. For example, Aman, feels she cannot talk to her spouse about her feelings about their future together because he tells everything to his side of the family and accuses her of selfishness. Where as she feels safe to discuss her problems with her girl friends even though they cannot help her but they offer her a safe space to disclose and not fear for repercussions.
The biggest fear we face is will you still love me if I told you how I truely feel? When love seems conditional like, I love you as long as you do X, if you don’t do X I don’t love you, If you do X I’ll love you; it breeds fear. Fear of losing love breeds lies and keeps us tied down to oppressive situations.
Two + Two of Communication
Communication in intimate relationships is a balancing act of becoming naked and keeping one self safe. It is not just about “me” being safe and emotionally naked but also about my partner becoming emotionally naked and being safe.
Following two conditions are the prerequisite of any healthy communication:
- Am I safe when you are emotionally naked? Will I be able to accept you for who you really are, what you feel and what you really want? Good example will be disclosure of sexual fantasies or past sexual encounters. Another example could be about wife telling her husband how she dislikes the interference from his mother/sisters in her personal time with her partner and children.
- Are you safe when I am emotionally naked? Will my revealing my true self not make you uncomfortable? The above mentioned example hold good here too.
Effective communication is a balancing act one has to reveal them selves and feel safe at the same time while keeping the environment safe for their partner to expose emotionally. I disclose my opinion only when I feel it is necessary and I am safe to reveal it. Where as, my partner had no concept of boundaries he would shoot opinions about every thing every minute; thus making it unsafe for me to open my mouth. Lack of emotional safety curbed my desire to share and be myself in the relationship.
We all try to balance safety and emotional nakedness and make some workable arrangement. There are some problem issues:
- When one or both partners come into the relationship with a need for safety that can overwhelm the either partner’s ability to provide safety. Example, to escape rejection, insults and abuse at home a person gets involved with a person they feel safe with. This is very common scenario with our so called love marriages. Now when ever the idealized partner will try to give any feed back to the partner with excessive need for safety he/she will be accused of being hurtful, judgmental and controlling. Thus snubbing off the partner from making any suggestions.
If one person’s extra need for safety is so great that he/she can’t allow the other person to both feel safe and do what they wants, that’s a relationship that’s too bad to stay in (103).
- One partner constantly taking things off the table. Basically he or she is saying “your showing the issues that are important to you and your need to resolve them makes me uncomfortable and unsafe.” Thus both knowingly and unknowingly I’ll make you feel unsafe to talk about them.
If you can’t talk about things that are important to you then it is time to think about the future of this relationship.
Kirshenbaum, Mira. 1997. Too Good to Leave Too Bad to Stay. New York, NY: Plume.