Communication Storm

Thunder rumbled in the distance. A bank of coal-dark clouds gathering above our neighborhood indicated a storm was heading our way. The computer, I thought, I wonder if we should unplug it. I looked over at my husband, the master of all things technical in our household and asked, "Honey, a storm is coming. Do you think we should unplug the computer?"

"No, it's fine," he said. A few minutes passed. The thunder roared closer.

"Honey, are you sure we shouldn't unplug the computer?"

A look of annoyance came over his face and he threw his hands up in an exaggerated gesture of surrender, "Don't believe me? Do what you want!"

What was it about my simple question that triggered such an angry response? Now my feelings were hurt. Defensively I shot back, "Why are you using that tone of voice with me?"

"I told you the computer was fine. You obviously don't believe me."

What started as a harmless question soon dissolved into tears and raised voices as we tried to explain to each other what we meant by our actions and reactions. The frustration we both felt was almost palpable.

Who would guess that the simplest of exchanges between a husband and a wife could be so loaded with subtext? How quickly communication can become a confusing labyrinth of misunderstanding and hurt feelings.

My perspective remained: It was just an innocent question! His echoed: Why didn't you believe me the first time I answered you?

Foreign languages

Interpersonal communication, especially in marriage, is as challenging as learning one of those obscure African dialects which few outsiders have mastered. With a simple misplaced inflection, you've offended the natives.

Take a simple question like, "Do you think we should unplug the computer?"

In retrospect, what I was really saying to my husband was, "Please explain to me the safeguards we have in place to protect our computer from lightning strikes. I don't understand."

What my husband actually heard in my innocent question was, "I don't trust you to know what you're doing when it comes to safeguarding our electronics."

So what appeared to be a simple question and answer was riddled with deeper meaning. After our initial argument, my husband apologized for his over-sensitivity. To avoid future misunderstandings, we attempted to analyze what triggered the emotional launch sequence between us.

Semantic detectives

Working together like a couple of semantic sleuths, we discovered why our interaction mushroomed the way it did. Aside from taking my question as a challenge to his technical competence, my husband expressed his worries about our financial situation after a cross-country move. Under-employment, vehicle problems, unexpected crises and uncertainty about meeting our obligations all these issues were eating at him at the same time I asked my "harmless" question about the computer. He was feeling squeezed by our circumstances, and as someone who prided himself on being the family guardian, he sensed for the first time that he might fail at his charge.

With his mind so assaulted by "I'm a failure" messages, my question about the computer was easily interpreted as one more critical voice. Likewise, my unease about the computer situation belied deeper concerns.

When we drilled down, we discovered a descending list of subconscious fears: If the computer gets destroyed, we don't have the money to replace it; I make my living with the computer, and losing it means losing income; if we lose income, we can't pay the bills . . . we could lose everything we own . . . we'll become destitute . . . our friends will desert us . . . and on and on. Our respective fears were coloring our feelings, our perceptions, and ultimately, our ability to communicate clearly.

Reading each other

My husband and I have been married for just under a year. We're still getting to know each other's odd habits, quirks and phobias in other words, all the stuff you don't see (or choose to ignore) when you're in the throes of romantic love and both of you are still on your best behavior.

I'm just learning, for example, that when he looks off into space with his jaw set, he's not thinking about our relationship or the meaning of life. He's usually working out a math equation or how to put a motorcycle back together.

He's finding out that I'm not very good at balancing the checkbook or understanding combustion engines. He's also figuring out that just because I forget to change the showerhead back to the bathtub setting, doesn't mean I don't love him I'm just scatterbrained.

We both have to learn to detect each other's non-verbal signals and not to take it too personally when one of us doesn't get the other every time. And that's a communication lesson that takes time. But we can learn by making an effort to think outside the "I": not constantly focusing on how I feel when he don't respond to me the way I think he should.

Marital communication is a necessary discipline. I say "discipline," because getting to the root of differences can feel like drudgework sometimes. But in committing to the painstaking work of understanding and accepting one another, we move toward a deeper and more satisfying level of intimacy.

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