“Why can’t you hear me when I talk to you?”

Part one of two

A couple is “clarifying” things early on in their relationship. Maggie says, “If I found out you were cheating on me, I’d be devastated.”

What do you think that means?

Well, here’s what Maggie thinks she’s saying: “Don’t ever cheat on me. Ever. It would be the worst thing you could do. It would destroy my ability to love you.”


But this is what her partner Spence hears. “Huh. She said, ‘...found out...’ So if I ever did cheat I’d have to make super-sure she never found out. And she said she’d ‘be devastated.’ So...really upset, I guess. She’d yell, and cry, and I’d sleep on the couch for a while, and I’d buy her gifts, and then it would blow over the way it always does when she’s upset.”

Or, on a much more mundane level, Parker comes home from work (these were the days when people “came home from work”!) and says, “Oh, man, what a day. I’m so tired.”


What do you think that means?


What Parker thinks he’s saying is, “Don’t fuck with me tonight. Don’t ask me to do anything. I’m running on empty. If you start coming at me with things to do, it’s gonna get ugly.”

But here’s what Alicia hears. “He’s saying he’s tired. Yeah. Like I’m not tired. Like he’s not tired every night when he comes home. It’s like a broken record. Poor baby. Well, you know what? If you indulge them on this, the next thing you know, they’re the master and you’re the slave.”


Relationships are symphonies, orgies, of miscommunication. We don’t listen to each other. And if we do listen, we don’t hear, and if we do hear, we don’t understand.

Why? Why, oh why, oh why are there these chasms of misunderstanding between people who share each other’s bodies and houses and beds and meals and lives?

Actually, there are tons more reasons why than you might think. Here are the main ones.


First of all, when we talk to our partners, we rarely have their attention. Like, my husband will be in the living room at one point, then he’ll leave to do something. I won’t know that he’s left, or I won’t care, or I won’t be thinking about it at all. I’ll just start talking to him. But he’s in the bathroom with the water running.


But maybe we’re driving to my appointment with my doctor. Maybe there’s something going on with my body that I’m worried about, and I’m thinking about it. And my husband will start talking to me about monkeys or tomatoes or the French Revolution. I don’t care, and I can’t listen, and I can’t even hear him. He doesn’t have my attention even though I’m sitting right next to him.

So, hey: do you want to feel heard? Make sure you have your partner’s attention. If they can’t give you their full attention for some reason, that’s okay. Better to wait till they can pay attention than make a mess right now.

Next, we hear what we want to hear. That’s what happened with Spence. He took Maggie’s text—If I found out, I’d be devastated—and gave it the most convenient interpretation possible. Am I saying he did this consciously or deliberately? Hell, no. He really thinks he heard what he heard.


And that’s the crucial thing. Smart people can be really bad at hearing another person. It can be hard for a smart person to think he or she hasn’t understood what’s come into their ears.

Well, guess what? If you say, “X,” to me, there hasn’t been any communication at all. For us to be able to say we’ve communicated—and there has to be an “us”—you have to say, “X,” then I have to say what I’ve understood, and you have to confirm that I’ve understood. For those of you who can’t count, much less hear, that’s three steps, not one! Yeah! The simplest communication requires these three steps for it to even be communication. Otherwise, you’re just talking to the birds.


Like...

  1. “I’m so sick of eating Chinese food.”

  2. “So you don’t want to eat Chinese food anymore?”

  3. “No, no, but maybe no Chinese food for, say, the next three weeks. How would that be?”

  4. “Oh, that’d be fine.”

And that’d be good communication.


Next—and you’d probably guess this was coming—we hear not the communication but the underlying power move. Parker just came home and said he was tired. Now we’ve said it’s a power move if it makes you feel disempowered. True! But you need to check it out, too.

Every statement every person makes is a bid for something. The question always is, what is it a bid for? If I ask you what time is it, it’s a bid for you to tell me the time. Usually, anyway. But if we’re strangers in a bar and I come up to you and say, “Hi, my name is Harry. Can I buy you a drink?” that’s not really a bid for me to buy you a drink. It’s a bid for you to ask me to sit next to you and for us to strike up a conversation. Strangers in a bar usually know this.


But partners in an intimate relationship may well NOT know what “What a day. I’m so tired,” means. Crazy, huh?


So, want a great rule? Try this. NEVER respond to a communication until you’ve checked and gotten a confirmed sense of what it’s a bid for. Maybe Parker just wants you to say, “Oh, my poor sweet baby!” Maybe he wants you to say, “Okay, you know what. Tonight you don’t have to do anything at all. Leave everything to me.” Maybe he just wants you to know that he’ll do all the shit he’s supposed to do, but you should just be aware that’s he’s tired and cut him a tiny bit of slack.


There’s more. Lots more. We’ll finish up next time.

Meanwhile, Why Couples Fight is exactly about how to communicate so you can get your needs met without things degenerating into miscommunication at best and a horrible fight at worst.

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