Let’s Just Talk About It
Words strung together become clichés for a reason; they’re repeated and digested and generalized as stones of truth. They hurt or caress when the intent for either is nonexistent. We’re all simply trying to communicate, to tell our own truth, but for good or bad there’s nothing more powerful than our words.
I just started reading, for the third or fourth time, Deborah Tannen’s book, That’s Not What I Meant. How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships. Communication fascinates me and the first time I read Tannen’s book it was assigned as part of a college sociology class. I remember feeling captivated, enlightened and nodding my head in affirmation through each passage and chapter.
Every time I’ve read the book I’ve taken away something different, something relevant to whatever is going on in my professional or personal life at the time. Monday I started reading it again for two reasons…I have a new client who’s conversational style is much different than my own and I want to build the relationship. Second, I find myself struggling with a new awareness in my marriage.
You already know there’s a significant age difference between my husband and I. Other people most likely have given our 27-year number gap more thought than I have over the 14+ years we’ve been together, but recently I’ve begun to contemplate, to become aware in ways I never anticipated. I want to talk about how I feel and what I think, after all…I’m a woman and therefore hard-wired to make sense of my world through conversation. It’s a difficult conversation to have with friends, with my husband, with myself.
I think most of us first become aware of people we love aging with our parents. We expect parents to go through certain life stages and different realities long before we do. We anticipate our parents will require different circumstances, care and understanding while we’re still young enough to provide certain comforts. We don’t learn in the natural course of events to anticipate those same changes in our spouse long before we’re experiencing them ourselves.
I remember when Kim and I first got together, he clearly explained numerous times that, “Tricia, one day I’ll be an old man and you’ll still be a fairly young woman. It’s not fair for me to ask that of you.” Of course I reassured him and said it was my choice to make, it was my future too and that I understood what I was signing up for. He believed me. I believed me. I was 23.
Given the opportunity again today, even with the growing awareness I have of how different our realities will eventually become, I’d make the decision all over again to stay with him. I don’t have any sense of regret or remorse, and I certainly have no intention or desire to bail so let’s put that on the table just in case you’re wondering where I’m headed with this conversation. What I do need is to find a new kind of peace with this growing sense of mortality and the small age-related changes I’m observing that with time will become more pronounced.
Finding that peace is where my struggle begins, and it’s where differences in conversational style become acute and cumbersome. Broaching the subject with my husband is delicate. Regardless of the words I use, he HEARS what he told me all those years ago… that one day he’d be aging while I was still young, and he feels guilty for having anticipated it, yet still moving forward with the relationship. That guilt creates a filter through which my words need grease and meaning becomes much more subjective than I intend. When he responds, I’m also filtering his words through that previous conversation and the guilt I have for even bringing this up since after all…we discussed this before we committed to each other. What right do I have to bring this up now. And I know he can’t help but wonder if I say it out loud, does that mean I’m going to abandon him simply because he’s experiencing things he has no control over…he’s progressing through life just as he should and what right do I have to acknowledge the observations? It makes everyone uncomfortable.
Yet here I am…a woman…hard wired to make sense of my world through conversation.
Perhaps the longer a couple is together the more filters we construct, the more webs of unintended consequences we create where every carelessly strung together sentence carries a whisper of some previous conversation, a call-to-action in our brain to read between non-existent lines. As my husband and I figure out how to talk through a new awareness, I’m quite sure I have to think twice about how my words are delivered and how they’re heard. The phrases I choose and their delivery will hurt or caress when my intent is simply to communicate my truth.
What about you dear friends. Have you recently had a difficult conversation, broached a challenging topic and found you needed to think twice about how preconceptions or internal dialogue is interfering with how your words are heard?