The next four weeks, for me, are a countdown of sorts. And partially due to this countdown and partially due to some inspiration taken from one of my friends at work, I’ve decided to do a series on the four “pillars” of a successful relationship. These are not the only pillars, by any stretch of the imagination, and your own experiences may have you placing a higher value on some of these more than others – or even replacing some of these with others . But from my own experience, this is what I know:
I’ve had a lot of relationships. And in all of them, I can honestly say that the one factor that really made or broke the relationship was communication. And when I say communication, I don’t mean the amount of communication. I don’t need to be in contact with my significant other all day, every day, every hour, every minute, and every second. I don’t need to know everything that person is doing, I don’t need a breakdown of every detail.
No, what I’m talking about here is communication in the sense that both people in the relationship realize what they need and they find a way to communicate that to each other constructively. Constructive communication is meant to build up the other person, to strengthen the relationship. When you’re talking, communicating, having a civil, constructive conversation, each person comes out of it realizing what the other person needs, issues can be resolved, things get fixed. Without solid communication, unless you are some sort of mind-reader, there are misunderstandings, chaos, utter breakdown – and, ultimately, bitterness which leads to failure. I suppose what I’m trying to say is quality exceeds quantity.
My marriage, for example, was a complete failure. Things broke, in this case, because we were two incompatible people that were trying to make things work when they weren’t supposed to. Things became intolerable and unnecessarily inflammatory because we chose the wrong ways to communicate. Frustration over the things we could not agree on got the better of us. Emotions ran high. We lost our tempers. Simple discussions became screaming matches very quickly and while the divorce was probably the most civil part of that entire relationship, that isn’t really something to be proud of. By the time the divorce was done, we didn’t care enough to fight anymore. We were both tired and we both wanted out. At least, I guess, that was something we could both agree on.
I suppose in this sense, yes, there was communication, but it was the inflammatory kind. Emotions got too tied up into it. He was an overemotional bastard and anytime I pointed out something that I needed or something that I wasn’t getting, it was as if I was making a personal attack. Was I perfect? Probably not. I have a bad habit sometimes of thinking before I speak and I did that a lot in those days. I’m sure there were times when I really was being inflammatory and was really irritating the already touchy situation by saying things I shouldn’t have said. (Calling him a dumbass when he said he didn’t want his children to be booksmart like me is a very good example.)
Buttface, who I’ve also mentioned before, came after that marriage. And this was the exact opposite. Ironically, the relationship began online. Chat rooms don’t give you the luxury of reading body language or facial expressions. You type. You talk. You get to know someone else. And so, when he and I started to see each other post-divorces, I assumed that communication would come easily for us. The funny thing is, we had no problems communicating… we could sit and talk for hours about the most asinine things. Sharing the same sense of humor meant we found the same inappropriate things funny. The good times were really good times… he was non-confrontational and didn’t seem to mind if I did what I wanted to do. I was passive enough after the horrific marital experience to not want to press any issues that I may have been upset about. I went into it saying I didn’t want to fight, and we didn’t fight. Ever.
But looking back on some of the things I wrote during those days, especially as things started to fall apart, I’ve realized that while we were fine when things weren’t important, we were horrible at discussing the big things. I was intimidated. Conditioned, even. I’d gotten so used to being screamed at when I tried to express things that I needed that I didn’t have the balls to rock the boat in this new situation.
And he, well, I don’t know his excuses (and I don’t care to know) but we can safely say that when it came to the big things, he was never open enough with me to just talk about it. There were plenty of things wrong in that situation… I know that now. He wanted things that, had he asked, I’d have happily given him. But he never told me, and I am not a mind reader. I was so conditioned not to push matters, and so confused about how to ask the questions I needed to ask, that I was willing to let things drag on so that they could “fix” themselves. But that’s not how solutions are reached, either.
At any rate, while we never had a knock-down-drag-out fight about it like in my marriage, I knew something was wrong when we stopped talking at all. The conversations about the non-important things stopped. He became distant. There was never a conversation about what we needed to do to work things out, there was never the conversation about what he needed versus what I needed, there was never any middle ground reached. Things just kind of went on the way they went on – he’d hang out with me (though not sleep with me), I’d still hang out with him, we’d eat together, he’d spend the rest of his time playing video games (and I’d play occasionally too), and I’d sit there wondering where it had all gone wrong. How had we gotten from him telling me he wanted to “keep” me, to practically ignoring me altogether with the exception to the awkward hug I’d get when I’d leave to drive home?
The passive-aggressive treatment continued until, finally, I made the discovery that he was seeing someone else. Not one to be passive-aggressive if I have the evidence in hand, I communicated this to him immediately. I broke it off, cleanly, and with probably more words than I’d said to him in six months. It ended, but I was still burnt up about it.
Sometimes I think passive-aggressive communication is worse than even the abusive kind… when that’s the monster you’re dealing with, you don’t know what caused it, there are no conversations about it, things just kind of fall apart and you’re left holding the pieces and thinking my god, what the hell just happened here? Avoidance may look like the easy way out, but I can assure you, there is plenty of drama after the fallout begins and it’s much, much worse than the drama of just “dropping the hammer” so to speak.
There are many ways to communicate with people. And I’ve come to realize that there are, unfortunately, more negative ways than positive. Positive, constructive communication is simple: you know what you need, you find a clear, logical way to ask for what you need. Then you actually listen with an open mind to what the other person has to say (that’s really, really, really important), and then, if you really want things to work, together you try to find some sort of solution. Constructive communication is NOT attacking the other person. Constructive communication is NOT ignoring the other person, either because you don’t care enough to discuss the issues (if you don’t care enough, seriously, you should just leave) or because you are too non-confrontational to discuss the issues.
And as I mentioned before, listening is really important too. That’s the key to any kind of communication happening at all. If there’s no listening, you may as well be having a conversation with a brick wall. And when you listen, you do it with an open mind. You take the other person into consideration. You try to understand what they’re saying, even if sometimes they do not express it in the most eloquent of ways and even if you don’t agree. You internalize it, and you try to see it from the other person’s perspective. Even people with polarizing opinions are able to reach a compromise if they really try, and compromise can only be reached by really, truly, listening to what the other person has to say, and, further, caring enough to take their opinions into consideration.
Relationships aren’t one-way affairs, communication within a relationship cannot be a one-way affair. You don’t simply wake up one morning, on the same page, with everything neatly in place and a big bow on top of it. It would be nice, but it doesn’t work that way.
Relationships are a lot of work. And in order for them to work, you have to want the same things. From that same blueprint, you share a dream, you think together, and you communicate those ideas to make that happen. When you don’t, you flounder around without direction, without purpose, and when things go wrong, because there was never a common goal to begin with, there’s nothing left to talk about. Suddenly, you’re fighting without knowing what you’re fighting about and, mostly, out of frustration because you don’t know where it is you’re supposed to be going. Alternately, you’re ignoring it and hoping it goes away. Ultimately, if there was no track to travel on initially, you have nothing to get back onto when you’ve had a disagreement.
And I’ll pose a question… rhetorical, mostly, though I would kill to know the answer to it if there even is one: If communication is so easy in the beginning, if we can open up to each other, and talk, and share ideas, then why does it always seem that when we become “settled” into something, things become harder? That something about the spark of the communication is lost? Do we stop listening? Do we become complacent?
Sure it’s easier to be passive-aggressive. It’s easier to be inflammatory. It’s easier to leave what is hard and go back to the beginning with someone new, where things are easy and uncomplicated. But what happens when that gets hard, too? When you have to find that blueprint? Do you keep jumping from place to place or do you try to make it work?
After all, doesn’t the old saying go: Nothing worth having is ever easy?