Thursday, April 03, 2008

Communication

Paul and I do not communicate well, and that, I believe, is the source of most of our marital conflict.

(He's right, sigh; I do need to call our therapist and set up another session. Our first therapist worked for a nonprofit so she only cost us $30 per session and she made house calls. What could be more convenient? Our current therapist is just as amazing, but she's sort of the guru. So we (read: I, usually) wrangle child care, then we drive a long and awkward commute to pay $90 for a session. Ouch. At least we were still seeing therapist #1 when we were in crisis mode and needing twice weekly visits.)

Some examples of our continued crappy communication:

First, there's the ultimate one that drove us to the brink of divorce. I created our relationship as I wanted it to be, and Paul agreed with me every step of the way, never pointing out when he really disagreed, and, over time, became so angry with me and so disengaged that our marriage almost ended.

More recently, there was yesterday's fight: Ever since becoming pregnant for the first time, I've made a point to significantly increase my water intake. One of my strategies is to keep a nice plastic cup - quite distinct from all of our glasses - full and sitting out to serve as a reminder and lower the barrier to drinking. Usually, the cup is on the kitchen counter these days, as that spot's in the main flow of household traffic and yet is high enough/water resistant enough that the risks of child tampering and disastrous accidental spillage are minimized. Paul knows about my cup/water strategy, of course, but repeatedly picks up my glass and stacks it with the dirty dishes by the sink or in the dishwasher. What an odd thing to have a huge screaming fight over, yes? Usually, I ignore it and get a fresh glass. Maybe I make a comment about how the cup didn't need to be washed yet and I'll put it with the dirty dishes when it does, but what's the use of fighting over it? Apparently, the cup on the counter is "clutter" to Paul. (Those who've been to our home know that a solitary cup on the counter is the least of our clutter problem. What about the neighboring stacks of paper?) Somehow, last night, this all blew up into a huge argument about the damn cup and all that it represents in our relationship. I still have no idea how that happened; I wasn't even angry when I made my usual comment about him moving it yet again, but I sure hit a nerve.

Today: Paul went to the St. Louis Cardinals game as a guest of some vendors this afternoon. This isn't sour grapes, but we've been dealing with trust, honesty, and secret-keeping issues, and I had no idea that he wasn't at the office all afternoon. It's not on his calendar, and he didn't mention it today or at any time all week long. Early last week, he mentioned that he'd been invited to a game sometime this week and that he was trying to decide if he should go or pass the ticket along to someone who reports to him, and that was the end of the conversation. With mobile phones, not to mention living in the same damn house, it seems like he could have mentioned where he'd be, since it was definitely out of the ordinary today. (Paul has an office/desk/meetings job. Vendor excursions are very uncommon for him. And he made sure I knew all about his morning off-site meeting but didn't mention his very off-site afternoon adventure.)

Tonight: There was some fracas over us needing milk, Paul taking Ellie to gymnastics after supper and me taking Ada to get the milk, and Paul stopping off to get himself a treat (read: Starbucks, natch) on the way home and not getting me anything because he assumed that I'd gotten myself something while I was out getting the milk. meanwhile, of course, being me, I'd picked up treats for both of us (though not Starbucks!) at the store and had also gotten him a new box of the snack bars he prefers to keep in his desk at work.

With the significant exception of the first one, these are such small, minor issues, not worth fighting over. Except that they add up to excruciatingly common misunderstandings, mistaken assumptions, and failed communications. Result: a lot of frustration and tension.

Paul says that we're both sleep deprived, which makes us impatient and decreases our attention spans. That's true. But what's probably also true is that I'm very good at communicating (surprise!) and I figure that it's the same for everyone. I say what I want/need/feel/expect and depend upon everyone around me to be the same. I figure, "Hey, if you want something to be different, you have to ask for it." Like at Burger King. (Isn't that one of their old ad campaigns?)

My refrain: we both need to step back in each conversation and try to identify the assumptions we're making, then be more explicit to avoid sitcom-worthy miscommunications. Paul hears: You suck donkey balls.

So. Back to the therapist. Sigh.

15 comments:

Orange said...

I suspect every couple has their flashpoints, niggling little offenses that one party remains woefully blind to. Now, with the water glass issue, each of you has a habit/preference the other one doesn't value. You want your water glass left alone on the counter. Paul wants the counter cleared. Have you tried using a water bottle, labeled SARAHLYNN'S WATER in giant permanent marker letters? Just to make a really obvious visual cue for Paul that says "Oh, wait, leave this one here, or push it back to the corner, but don't put it with the dirty dishes." And maybe you could try to remember to keep the bottle pushed to the back/corner, because your husband has one of those weird anal things about glasses on the counter. No, it doesn't make sense, but it's

(My husband inherited an "Omigod, don't remove the lint trap from the dryer to clear out the lint. THE DUST! THE DUST WILL GO EVERYWHERE! Keep the lint trap fully within the confines of the dryer so that the dust can settle only inside the dryer, rather than POISONING THE HOUSEHOLD WITH THE EVIL DUST" issue from his mother. It appears to be permanent.)

(Speaking of my husband, he doesn't resent it when I go out to eat without him as long as I bring him leftovers. Sometimes I don't bring leftovers—if, say, I finished all my food, my friend and I went out after the meal, and the weather is warm anyway. He's pissed. The best I can do is to tell him my food was lousy and he wouldn't have enjoyed it at all.)

Why are you both sleep-deprived? If it's the kids' sleeping habits in general (and not recent illnesses or anything), I highly recommend reading Mary Sheedy Kurcinka's Sleepless in America. She's got ways of getting the whole family to sleep more.

Orange said...

I didn't finish that sentence in p. 1. "...but it's important to him, and keeping the counter a little clearer could keep his grumpiness at bay." (And if he's not pissed off at the counter, he won't move your stuff around and make you grumpy.)

Sarahlynn said...

The kids are currently in a great nighttime sleeping routine. Yay! So our sleep deprivation issues are due entirely to poor time management. Well, and in my case, to the fact that I write late at night. But starting next fall, I hope to have time built into my day for that, which will help somewhat! Maybe this summer I can hire a teenager to watch the kids while I lock myself into my room and write occasionally. Then I won't be up until 3 am, closely followed by by Ada's morning wake-up call between 5 and 6 am. (naps and further morning snoozing undependable and frequently to be found only while sitting in the nursery rocking chair).

I am so freaked out about your dryer dust! Doesn't your husband know that YOU WILL ALL DIE IN A BLAZING INFERNO if the lint catcher isn't emptied after every single load? And maybe even then? Dryers scare me. It's sort of a love/hate thing, as I like dry clothes a lot too.

The counter thing is so weird; I suspect that there must be something else behind it. Our kitchen peninsula is where the clutter collects, so that it takes me a moment to even find my cup amongst the crap. But he feels that that counter is his (self-assigned) responsibility, and (perhaps/just guessing) the cup is something he can easily control (unlike the paperwork and Ellie's school take-homes, which quickly overwhelm both of us). So I'm now using a different counter in the evenings; we'll see how that works. (Ellie can reach it, and sometimes enjoys spilling my water to watch my reaction, but at least it's a counter that Paul and I both tend to ignore.) We like our house but have a very tiny kitchen.

Doesn't it seem silly, the little things married people get so upset about?

My dad used to leave his orange peels on the floor for my mom to pick up. He wouldn't break the habit, so my mom assigned me to pick them up. He moved a trash can closer to his chair and stopped leaving the peels on the floor.

One of our ongoing battles involves the laundry. After listening to us bicker, our therapist gave us some homework: by a sorter hamper. It's really helped a lot.

In other words, thanks for your advice; I love practical solutions to little problems that we all make out to be so BIG and IMPORTANT.

Jamie said...

Sarahlynn,

I've been reading your blog every week or so since Ellie was a baby and had surgery. I love checking in, and I love reading your posts.

On the relationship front, my girlfriend and I have similar issues. Since we're both women, I guess maybe the dynamic is a little different, but what you're describing sounds familiar.

See, I'm more like you describe your husband. (But I'm also like you in that I often make sure my wife has all the little treats she likes--I just had to say that! :)

But I often use the words "I" and "my": "my (not our)house," "I (not we) sent this gift, etc. I'm not sure what that's about, but I feel embarrassed by it sometimes, and my wife tolerates it. I'm not so much on fusing with my partner, and sometimes I need to feel my own edges and experience my own solitary self. We've been together 10 years, and the closeness/separation issue comes and goes. Sometimes we're closer, sometimes farther, but always in touch.
We used to fight about what each of us gives. See, in relationships I tended to take on the role of the "bad" one or the "selfish" one, and I am drawn to women who take on the role of the "good" or "selfless" one. I have no idea why. It's just one of those relationship mysteries!
So after much therapy, I have worked on stopping being the bad one (because it led to my own resentment) and started challenging my wife about her assumption of being the good one. Because we had some tacit agreements going on that were harmful. Like, in any given negative situation I would immediately take too much responsibility, and she would take too little. Which led to blaming: she blamed me (because in any event, someone always has to be to blame :) and I blamed me (because I'm the bad one). Which somehow led to recriminations and resentment.

But one day, she was driving me to work (and she didn't want to) and this huge wrench fell from the sky and narrowly missed the car. If it had hit the car, the damage would have been severe. We had been working on the blame/responsibility issues, and I immediately thought to myself "if that had hit the car, I would feel totally responsible because I made her take me to work." After a pause, she turned to me and said "if that wrench had hit the car, I would have totally blamed you because I didn't want to take you to work." And we were in awe. It was a watershed moment. I mean, a worker 9 stories up trips, and we can't just let it be an accident! No, someone had to be to blame. It was silly.

And I think then we made a choice to try to live in a world where things happen and no one is at fault. Or if they are, we decide not to assign guilt. We're still working on that one, but it has gotten easier. That happened over 8 years ago, and we still talk about it.

You've been so honest about your relationship and your struggle, so I just wanted to share. I am wishing you all the best, all the time.

Chris said...

Hi, I enjoy your reading your blog.

Sounds like you have a little passive aggressive power struggle going on.

I know it well because he my husband and I play that little game. Ultimately, it is about control and who has it. Instead of addressing the bigger issue, we fight for control over seemingly trivial things. The anger gets displaced.

Communication is so important, but it can be hard if one person is a "talker" and the other isn't. Finding time to truly communicate can also be hard when you have kids that are always around :)

If you want some advice from a total stranger--instead of using the time, childcare and money on a therapist, why don't you get a room at a hotel, order room service and a bottle of wine and spend the time communicating...connect in a more intimate setting than the therapist's office.

An infant, a child with special needs, work...it can all get overwhelming. You are each taking care of so much... you need to spend sometime taking care of each other.

mmoon said...

Hi Sarah,
I've been reading your blog for a long time but have never posted--I relate to so much of what you say. And I have a daughter named Ellie too! (Eleanor). Will you check out my blog when you get a chance? I put you on it under "people I relate to" I hope that's ok. If not, let me know. Thanks in advance.
Maya
http://everythingforareason-moon.blogspot.com/

ccw said...

I hope that a return to therapy is helpful to you and Paul. Better communication skills is at the top of my list for my and/or our therapy.

It does seem silly after the fact to fight over such unimportant things. I am anal about the way the dishwasher is loaded. I have been trying to ignore how it is loaded since the dishes come out clean either way.

Sarahlynn said...

Thank you, Jaime! That is a huge paradigm shift. I respect it and wish you and your girlfriend the best!

Chris, thanks. In some ways you're right. And the power dynamic stems partly from the fact that in my family you reach out and take power, and in Paul's family they avoid conflict at all costs (passive aggression is so much more fun).

But it's rather past the weekend alone in a hotel room thing, even if I were willing to leave the baby (which I'm not, yet). Simply making time for uninterrupted communication is not enough to resolve our issues.

And, frankly, I haven't got a whole lot more to give to this whole "taking care of each other" thing.

mmoon, I will, indeed. And, someday, when I update my links, you might find yourself there. . . (Thank you for commenting!)

CCW, Thank you, and I hope so too. (And don't be so sure about those dishes!)

the squeaky mouse gets the cheese said...

You guys have been through so much the last few years from the occasional posts I read here (wanderer/lurker, not full-time reader here). I always want the best for you both and the kids, so I read with dread the stories of stress and I send you good vibes and hope when you mention therapy, new ideas or upturns. I think the time when the kids are young (under 3) is the most stressful time you'll have, but maybe I'm naive about that. Maybe it's because they require a lot more focused care at that point so it wears you out mentally. Physical sleep is an extra pitfall which plagues us, stemming from the kids and from work/bad sleep habits on both our parts.

I had a point in there somewhere. As the kids grow up, there should be more 'us' time coming back. Keep fighting, find different ways to work on it. It makes me sad to hear you say you don't have a lot more to give. I'm not in your shoes so I don't know how hard it is, but one simple definition of love that I like is that it's about putting the other person first before yourself. If you still love each other, you have to work on that. If you aren't sure you still love each other, then hopefully the therapy can help determine that. If it ever goes that way (sigh), you at least are still going to be partners forever putting the girls first in everything.

Sarahlynn said...

Squeaky Mouse, I think that most marriages go through at least some of this. With Paul and I, we've just stripped away the veneer and are trying to deal with all of our issues very openly. (No matter how exhausting that can be!)

We are still very much in love, and not all days are bad days. Even on bad days, much of the time is just normal. We're feeding the children, taking them outside to play, communicating about when Ada last had her diaper changed and whether the girls have had their vitamins.

I agree with you about the difficulties of parenting very young children - and I really hope that I'm NOT being naive. The first three years are very hard. Although things with Ellie aren't easy now, at least she does play on her own regularly. Mothering a 4-year-old is much more manageable in its own way than mothering a 1-year-old who struggles with separation anxiety.

I do not like your definition of love, however. I believe that although we should always hold our partners in our hearts, running a background application, if you will, that's contantly thinking of what they want/need/would enjoy, I don't agree that it's a healthy idea to always put the other person before yourself.

In my experience, that can lead to unfulfilled self and dangerously building resentment. Sometimes, we really do need to take care of our own needs before we're able to care for others, just like with oxygen masks on airplanes

Chris said...

Saralynn, you are right. Sometimes you do just need to take care of your own needs first. It gets tricky though because what if one of your needs is for your husband to be happy? Marriage is so complicated. Finding that balance between be selfless and selfish, between being the caregiver and the caretaker. If one person is always taking, after awhile the one giving is just going to burn out and feel resentment. As you said, it is all about communication. Letting each other know what you need from each other and figuring out the best way to have both of your need met. It may take some compromise.

Meeting the needs of a couple of kids in the mix only makes it more difficult. Especially, if one of those kids has Ds. With typical kids, you think it is going to easier as they age. Having a child with Ds, myself, I often feel like it is never going to be easy again. There will never be that time when it is just me and my husband.

Humm? Maybe I should be looking into couple's therapy too.

Loving someone shouldn't be so hard at times.

Wouldn't it be nice if all you really did need was love?

the squeaky mouse gets the cheese said...

I don't agree that it's a healthy idea to always put the other person before yourself.
Hey, you're right, always may be a bit strong, maybe what I mean is mixed up with that old 'it's the thought that counts'...just because you usually try/think to put them first, you really shouldn't have to do that, as that person should be doing the same thing on their end in a pair-bond relationship and making sure that you don't have to hurt your own needs to satisfy theirs. If you consider the other person and what they need/want all the time, and they're doing the same for you, you hopefully don't get too many situations where both parties are in a stalemate and won't give, and when it works you avoid having to push very hard at all to get something you want. When in doubt, I also follow the best advice my Dad ever gave me-- 'it's not always important to be right'. Coming from the wisdom of someone with a productve 30 year second marriage and a failed first one of 8 years or so (which did produce two awesome kids at least) that one really stuck with me.

Sarahlynn said...

Chris and Mike, I think it's even more complicated than giving and taking in a two person relationship when you add the whole family into the mix.

For example, I want to be a writer. The only way for me to do this is to spend a lot of time writing. And, it just so happens that when I'm writing I am necessarily completely absorbed in what I'm doing. It's not an activity that's compatible with taking care of very young children, so it must be done late at night.

This schedule and my resultant lack of adequate sleep (until such time as we can afford/arrange adequate daytime childcare for the children) is an additional stressor on the family.

My husband supports my desire to write, but there's no denying that it's a stressor on our relationship and on our family life.

So is it selfish of me to pursue this now, rather than waiting until my children are all in school?

I'd argue no. Because, as it turns out, I need this in order to feel purposeful, fulfilled. And a frustrated, unfulfilled, resentful Sarahlynn is also a big stressor on marriage and family life.

Sigh.

I wish we could just love and leave it at that, rest on that, enjoy that for a while. But it turns out that's not enough, not in the long term, and that's why I don't often read romance novels (random aside alert!). For me, the interesting part starts AFTER the happily ever after.

(Chris, I'm a big fan of the therapy lately. I used to be a skeptic, but we found a great fit and it saved our marriage.)

Chris said...

Sarahlynn--being exhausted can't be too conducive to writing. It really is about balance. Balancing all of the roles in your life: mother, wife, writer; balancing what gives you fulfillment. Sometimes it can be hard to have it all. There are only so many hours in the day.

You're right, adding family into the mix does make it more complicated because like it or not, at times, having children and being married does require some degree of self sacrifice, on the part of both partners.

I'm glad therapy has helped you and your husband. It is a testament of your love and dedication to your girls and each other that you are both willing to put in the time and effort that is needed to make your marriage work.

Psycho Kitty said...

Remind me to tell you the Sandwich Story someday. I think you'll enjoy it.

I do think that *knowing* the problem's there is a huge part of solving it.