Talking about Talking

You know that old saying about what happens when we assume; we make an ass out of u and me! Except, when it comes to relationships, it’s not so much “make an ass” as “make a mess.” Perhaps the most basic assumption we make is that we know how to talk to people.

The truth, though, can be a little more complicated. Even with the person I talk to most, I still run into places where my skills need sharpening, and where we have to work together to find tools that work to keep both of us on the same page. Over time, Carlos and I have come to a series of agreements about how we handle ourselves in substantive conversations.

  • Assume best intentions. We have a partnership; the end goal is always to make things better, for ourselves, our kid, our marriage, the people around us. We’re human and we make mistakes, but we don’t work to actively hurt one another. Even when what we’re talking about isn’t “an important issue,” we still try to work under the assumption that the goal is better understanding, not just arguing.
  • We are on the same team. When we sit down to work out an issue, we make an effort to remember that we are working together. It’s not about winning, or proving a point. The purpose is to work out an issue together. Yes, we get into knitty-gritty stuff, and it’s hard. It can be especially hard when the issue at hand is something that one of us is doing; it can be easy to feel personally defensive. In this case, it’s good to remember that it’s being discussed because we care about one another; we’d probably let it slide if we weren’t committed to making our partnership work.
  • A person’s feelings are not up for debate. When someone says they have a feeling, that is to be taken as an inarguable fact. What is done with that feeling is a different matter. Actions can be right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate. How we feel is not to be argued with, or asked to change. It’s fair to say “I don’t understand that feeling,” or to ask for more explanation. We’re not always going to understand what’s at the root of feelings, but talking about them can give us insight. And then we can talk about actions.
  • Keep it relevant. Talk about the issue at hand. Don’t change the subject or look for a place where you can “gain back ground” by being right. On this note: don’t make personal attacks, or bring up “old shit.” If something comes up that needs another discussion, set aside some time for it.
  • Be aware of yourself. Learn to read your own physical state, and how it can affect your communication. Body language, facial expressions, even breathing can be a signal. Sometimes, they’re saying more to your partner than they are to you. Learn to take a moment to check your own state – maybe you didn’t realize that you were making a face that looks like a scowl, or that your voice was rising in volume. Taking a moment to calm your breathing or slow down can be give the conversation a minute to relax as well.
  • Know when to take a break. Some conversations just aren’t going anywhere. It’s ok to take a short break, or a long one. When discussing an “important issue” with a partner, walking away forever is not a good option, but taking a step back can make a huge difference. Have a specific place, outlet, or time. For example: walk different directions around the block, go to different rooms for 5 minutes, or do some dishes–something that enforces separation and has a clear return point. Come back together and leave the petty stuff behind.
  • Say what you mean. This can take practice. You’re going to say the wrong thing sometimes, and that creates an opportunity to be better the next time. You can practice on your own, or with a third party. Say it outloud, so you can hear it. Write it down before you bring it up. I know I can get caught up in my head, and wrong ideas start making sense. Get some sunshine on them.
  • Examine your own position. If something is a hot button issue for you, try to understand why. It’s better for you and your conversation partners if you know where you’re coming from, and spending time examining your own beliefs will make you better able to articulate them, and to choose which ones are actually of use to you.
  • Be aware of your audience. Think about who you’re talking to, what you know about them, how your interactions with them have gone in the past. If you want to make actual progress, keep your conversational partner in mind when putting your thoughts into words. If you’re just looking for someone to yell at, try not to aim it at your partner.

Of course, neither of us always lives up to the standards that we shoot for, but that doesn’t mean that the goal is any less worthy. When we talk to people outside our relationship, these same guidelines apply. Conversation and learning are good, arguing for no reason is not. Unless given reason to do otherwise, we assume that people are coming to a conversation with good intentions, and we treat them with respect. My goal is still to work toward making things better, to find common ground and create more space for love.

photo credit: sachmanns.dk

An upside to Jealousy

Jealousy is a funny thing. It can creep up on a person in sneaky and unexpected ways, but it doesn’t always have to be a bad thing when it shows up.

Carlos and I have been apart for a month. For a month, he’s been sleeping alone, while I’ve had the company of our wiggly, gassy baby and our wiggly, gassy dog.

He spent a month jealous of the time that I was getting to spend with our littles, of the warm embrace of family bed, and hands-on parenting. He wasn’t seething with jealousy, but he felt pain at missing out on the things that he loves, which is entirely reasonable.

While he was enduring that hardship, I was dealing with the flip side: during one lovely afternoon, my folks watched Rockford while I took a three hour nap. That nap was the longest I’ve slept alone in a bed since immediately post-partum. And let me tell you, that was some sweet, glorious sleep. I think the dog might have been in bed with me, but no human hands touched me while I was sleeping. I didn’t have a lingering eye on whether Rock was going to take a dive off the edge of the bed. It was, without question, some of the most restful sleep that I can remember having.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love co-sleeping, I love our baby, I love family bed. I am not unsupported. But while Carlos was jealous of my time with our family, I was jealous of the unencumbered, quiet sleep he was getting away from us.

I guess this is another of those “the grass is always greener” situations that come up all the time in relationships. I might be totally jealous of the things that I imagine when I look into your world, but I have no idea what it’s actually like to be in there, or what you see when you look out. Of course, that’s not always true – we can talk about things and gain some understanding and perspective. As we grow in relationships with people, we gain insight into their drives and needs and desires. Carlos didn’t have to tell me that he missed sleeping with us, and I wasn’t surprised when he did. He doesn’t get ‘touched out,’ but he knows what I mean when I talk to him about it.

Often when we talk about jealousy, especially in romantic-partner relationships, there’s a feeling in the room that no good can ever come of it. Certainly no good comes from internalizing it and stewing, but we think there’s a strong case to be made for recognizing and talking about the feelings that come up in life. This is a small-stakes example – we were in this set of circumstances for a limited amount of time, and for specific reasons. Nonetheless, it presented Carlos and me with the opportunity to practice and refine one of the basic skills that keeps our relationship working – active, thoughtful communication. It’s not rocket science, but it is a tool, and like any tool you want to use, it needs to be kept sharp.

§weet ∂ræms

Love is weird, and that’s OK

Love is really hard for me some times.

In my “smart brain,” I know that it’s a two-way street, and that there’s a strong likelihood that the people I love also love me. I have been told that I am lovable, and people keep being friends with me and stuff, so clearly there’s something to that, but part of me still feels like I have to be perfect to be loved. I realize this is an artifact of old shit that I’m carrying around, but knowing that doesn’t make me stop feeling it.

When we were talking about depression last week, a couple people sent me private messages talking about “fake it ’til you make it.” It’s a tried-and-true method for a lot of people, and it has, at times, been an ally of mine. It works great for me in social situations – I roll in there like I’m an extrovert, like I’m comfortable being myself in a room full of strangers, and play along until I actually am comfortable (though never actually an extrovert). But when it comes to depression (and particularly this depression), it doesn’t cut it for me.

One of the things that Carlos said in his great post last week took a while to settle in for me. He said, “we have to show other people enough love that we can open up to them.” It seems a little backward, to say “here is my pain” and mean it as an expression of love. I, at least, want love to be happiness and sharing joy and creating positivity, and so this instruction “love them enough to show them your pain,” it feels counterintuitive to me. But, then again, I’m a hard-wired, dedicated introvert, with plenty of issues around showing vulnerability.

The vulnerability, though, is the key. All that pain that I think I’m sharing with you by opening up? It’s because of vulnerability. Showing you that I’m hurt isn’t necessarily showing you love (there are plenty of ways that sharing hurt is definitely not loving), but letting you see my broken insides, telling you that I trust you to see my pain and treat it with care, that’s love. Giving you that trust is an act of love from me to you, and opening that door is an act of love from me to me.

I often don’t know how to behave when I find myself in a situation like this. It feels insufficient and incomplete to say “thank you for letting me show you my vulnerability and treating it with kindness.” I feel like, at 32, with a husband and a child and plenty of living under my belt, I should be better than this. I feel like I shouldn’t still fall down the hole of depression, that I shouldn’t still find painful broken things inside of me. And I am still surprised to wake up every day and discover that people love me, not because they have to, but because… I don’t know. Because they do? (The phrase I want to use here is “porque sí,” “because yes,” but I don’t know an English equivalent.)

I guess the thing about love is that it always has the capacity to surprise and delight, even in dark times. I still don’t feel like I understand it, but I am grateful to have it in my life, and to be able to share it with my people.

RockandJoe

Rose’s boyfriend and Carlos’s frenemy

This morning, Carlos and I both had dates with our long-time other significant others. He took the train to see to his, and I’m taking care of mine on the living room floor. As I write this, RJ is napping, but he’ll be part of my date once he wakes up.

In general, I don’t love talking about stuff I’m working on. This is an old habit of mine – my mom describes catching me practicing faces in the mirror as a baby, testing them out before trying them on other people. I want to have a finished product before I share with people, but the truth about life is that sometimes there just isn’t a product at the end of the process. Sometimes we just do a thing every day, because it’s what we do, and we have to talk about it while it’s in process, because there is no end to it.

What does that have to do with my Monday morning date?

In my process of growing more comfortable in my own life, I have this lesson that I keep learning: everything in my life needs some care, and what that means is different for everything. Dita Lily needs food and exercise, adventures outdoors, cuddles on the couch, and to be reminded that she’s part of our pack. The kiddo needs the same things, but the way I deliver them to him is totally different (well, mostly). Carlos has needs, my relationship with him has needs, I have needs. And critically, I need to recognize what those needs are and how to address them.

One of the needs that I have struggled with mightily over the last, well, forever, is taking care of our home. Before I shared a home with Carlos, I struggled with taking care of my own home, my parents’ home, The House of Doom, all of the homes I have had. I like having a calm, clean house, but I have a hard time with the work that goes into it. That was a major motivation for me in going to Shaping Home. And it has been important in the conversations that Carlos and I have around relationships. Even in the most traditional, monogamous marriage, there are things outside of the primary dyad that require attention and energy, which are acknowledged as important by all parties. The most obvious one is children, and other family. Your love of your children doesn’t come between you and your spouse, it’s just a fact of family life.

And the same is true of the significant relationship I am tending to this morning. It doesn’t take away from my love of Carlos, though it can be a point of difficulty (just like kids!). Neglecting it makes our life harder; giving it a little time and attention makes things easier all around. As much as I struggle with it, I know that I need it, so I make the time. Sometimes it can be hard to do that, but it’s worth it.

So, what’s all this about, then? Who is this mystery that matters so much!? It’s laundry. In today’s case, three loads of clean laundry, sitting on my living room floor, waiting to be folded and put away. And Carlos, you ask? What’s his date about? Work, out of the house, in someone else’s quiet office.

I kind of hate that laundry is my boyfriend (yes, we do refer to it that way all the time). But I have power over this relationship, if I’m willing to exercise it. I don’t think Carlos feels as grumpy about work as I do about laundry, even though he describes it as his frenemy. We get different kinds of things back from the energy we put into these relationships, and that’s just a fact of life. Every relationship you have is different, has different needs, pays out different dividends. We don’t always get to pick our other significant others, but we always have to choice to make our relationships with them the best they can be.