Learning to Speak


Voice-header

When I look back on my first marriage, one of the things that is most disappointing is how blindsided I felt when I found out it was in trouble.  I knew my ex wasn’t really happy, and I even thought I knew the reasons; but I had no idea that one of those reasons might be me (and/or the marriage).

How does that happen?

How does a person (or couple I guess) get into a spot where one person basically wants out and the other person has no idea that is happening?  Was I some cold callous person who ignored her and only cared about myself?  I guess you would need her thoughts on that, but I sure didn’t think so.  For us to have that sort of gap in our understanding of things, the only thing I can definitively say is *something* had clearly fallen apart in communication.

The past is the past and can never be changed.  Which isn’t to say it doesn’t matter, as it absolutely does.  But the only place it really matters is in how you move forward and what you learn from it.

My goal was to learn enough to hopefully never be in that sort of position again.

 

If I never wanted to be in that spot again, it was up to me to try and understand how I got there.  It seemed surprising, because my ex and I never fought.  Like, never.  And in retrospect, maybe that was part of the problem.

Although we never fought, I can guarantee we didn’t always agree on things.  Which is to be expected, as people won’t always agree on things.  But maybe part of the problem was with how we approached those things we didn’t agree on.

I suspect we didn’t ever fight because instead of sharing how we were feeling, facing issues, and trying to work through them; we just ignored them.  Which is a fantastic idea of course, because we all know that if we ignore something for long enough it will go away (note, sarcasm intended).

That’s not to say I never raised issues.  But under the guise of picking my battles, I ignored way too much.  And many times I should have raised something, I didn’t.

 

Why didn’t I raise issues I felt should be raised?

Looking back, as embarrassing to admit as it is, it was fear.

Fear of the discomfort that it would cause.

Fear of the fight that may ensue.

Fear of the damage it could do.

 

It was WAY easier to tell myself something didn’t matter.  And there is some truth there, because often things don’t matter (the book “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” is all about reminding us that some things don’t really matter).  But I think at some level we know when things do matter, and when they do, it’s a mistake to keep silent.

However I often kept silent.

I think part of it was because it’s natural to feel uncomfortable with conflict.  In addition I think it was because I didn’t have the personal “tools” for working on things.

 

I had a pretty good childhood, and to this day I think highly of both of my parents.  It’s not like they were perfect or anything (no one is), but I think they are people who generally did their best.  And to me, at the end of the day I think that’s the most important thing.

One thing that my childhood didn’t prepare me for however, was conflict.

See, my parents didn’t really fight or argue.  I’m sure they didn’t always get along, but either their disagreements were behind closed doors OR because I was a kid I was just oblivious to it.  Talk to anyone who knows me well and they will tell you I can be completely naive and oblivious at times, so there’s actually a good chance it’s the latter.

Beyond parents, one of the main places young people learn is at schools.  And although it may be different now, learning about conflict, our emotions and how to manage them wasn’t exactly one of the topics that was covered when I was going through the school system.  It’s something that’s extremely important, but we all just kind of figure it out on our own, at our own pace.  Whatever that pace may be.

As a result I entered young adult life (and relationships) not knowing what to do with conflict.  Not knowing how to have “difficult conversations”, and often avoiding them.

 

Not knowing what to do with conflict was only part of the problem.  The larger problem was the associations I made about conflict…

The people I knew and loved didn’t seem to argue, so in my head I interpreted that as arguing was *bad*, or a sign of problems.  And I sure didn’t want that.  Eventually I found myself in a relationship (and later marriage) with someone who was just as conflict avoidant as I was.  And without being forced to face conflict together, I didn’t build up skills at dealing with it very well.

 

To be clear, I don’t blame anyone for this.  It was how *I* shaped my beliefs about the world based on my experiences.  And I share this primarily because I suspect the way I grew to view the world is not uncommon.

It took me a long time to learn that conflict isn’t bad.  It’s actually super important, and when done right is very healthy.  Conflict is nothing more than differences plus tension.  And since we are all different, it’s natural.

Sure it can go badly as well, but that’s more around how you handle the conflict.  Conflict itself is neither good nor bad.

And communication at its core is all about how you handle that conflict.

My ex and I didn’t come into our relationship with a very good toolset for allowing us to communicate and handle conflict.  And for whatever reason, we never built those tools up.

Looking back, we both had terrible communication skills – though I doubt either of us realized that at the time.  And that was likely a significant factor in the failure of our marriage.

 

When my fiancé and I met, one of the things I told her was that in our relationship no topic could ever be “off the table”.  And in fact, the harder something was to talk about the more important it probably was.

I understood this at an intellectual level, but practically my skillset was still very rudimentary.  She was (and is) much better in this space than I am, and has a much easier time raising the things that need to be raised.

At first it was very difficult.  She would raise something, and I would feel that discomfort – my chest starting to tighten and the blood rushing to my ears.  Sometimes she would suggest that maybe we shouldn’t talk about things, at least not right now.  And sometimes we drop things for the moment at least to gain some space and clear our heads.  But we both realize the importance of talking things through no matter how uncomfortable they make us.

Over time, it’s gotten easier.  I am able to listen, and push back at that discomfort I feel.  And I also find it much easier to raise things that I feel need to be said.

I firmly believe that when it comes to conflict and communication, there ARE tools that you can build up over time.  They are really skills, and the more you work at them the more you can improve them.

 

As a parent, it’s very important that I try to pass this along to my children.  When I think back on how I grew up believing conflict is bad (and how that shaped me), I don’t want that for them.  I want them to understand that conflict is natural.  That it’s alright to disagree.  To be frustrated or mad at each other sometimes.  And that in those moments it’s important to be able to talk to each other.  To tell each other what we are feeling and try to get at the root of why, in a caring and respectful way.  The feelings are natural, it’s how we manage them that really matters.

 

I went almost 40 years without understanding conflict and without having tools to deal with it.  I realize I still have a long way to go and I expect I will spend the rest of my life trying to improve my skills in this area.  That’s alright though, because although it took a long time I feel like I have found my voice, and learned how to speak.

It-s-not-about-finding-your-voice-it-s-about

9 thoughts on “Learning to Speak

  1. My marriage sounds a lot like yours. My ex-husband and I rarely argued. The problem was that we also didn’t talk. Part of this was conflict avoidance on my part; part was a total inability to communicate about feelings on his. It took him years to tell me (finally) that he wanted Christmas decorations in our house (background: I am Jewish, and we had agreed long before we married to have a Jewish house and only to celebrate Christmas with his family) because Christmas was the one time of the year his family was relatively peaceful. I immediately went out and bought a table top tree he could decorate with some of his family ornaments. When he asked why I had done this after all my yelling about how Christmas decorations in the house make me feel like I don’t belong in my own home, I explained that as he had never used those specific words before, I had no idea exactly what the holiday meant to him. Unfortunately, this didn’t carry over to other parts of our life. Hence, the ex part of ex-husband.
    To contrast, I told my fiance from the start I don’t like conflict and would rather talk about things before they got to be a problem. This came up big time over the past few days when I told him, I wasn’t ready to move to a new house — however lovely the house we were looking at is — and that part of the reason stemmed from some family issues on his side that were giving me panic attacks. After an evening wondering if I was still going to be in a relationship after all this, he came over the next day, and we spent the day talking everything over. We are now stronger than we were before.
    Regardless of how you communication, communication is paramount. We can’t have adult relationships without it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When it hasn’t been part of your life, healthy communication is pretty difficult to learn/build.

      Now that I have a better understanding of how much damage poor communication can cause, it’s very important to me to try and voice things.

      It’s a work in progress, and I suspect always will be 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Drew. I haven’t received anything in my inbox from you for many months and then out of the blue I open this nugget! Like wordsaremylife you could have also been describing my previous marriage. But the tangible benefit I’ve received from reading your piece is suddenly realizing that my son, now in his twenties, has been brought up by exactly the same kind of conflict avoidant parents that I was brought up by! There was NO conflict in my marriage because both myself and my ex wife were afraid of it. We were both afraid of it because we’d never been exposed to it in our own FOO. I’m going to send a copy of your article to my son and then have a conversation with him about it. Thank you so much.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hey Jon, it’s good to hear from you!

      As I said, I think we all learn conflict and communication at our own pace and in our own way.

      One of the biggest things that led to the decision to divorce on my part was I wanted to change things, couldn’t do it on my own, and realized how many terrible patterns my kids were learning from the unhealthy dynamic I had with their mom.

      Now I try very hard to talk about conflict with my kids. I want them learning differently, even if we are kind of learning together

      Like

  3. So true.. communication is really important especially for marriage to lasts. I remember there is a saying that long after the sex is gone the only thing you and your spouse can do is talk 🙂 the person who will be forever in your life should be able to express his/her feelings freely and both of you can enjoy talking growing old together. I hope we can survive all the issues that couples may have. It needs 2 to tango as another saying goes. Cheers! Glad to see your new post. I hope everything is fine with you and your loved ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi vinneve, things are great! I’m in a great spot, and I think it’s also been very good for my kids to see a healthy relationship modelled to them. Things were hard on them when their mom and I split, but they took very well to my fiance and they seem as happy as I’ve seen them in a very long time. And that’s really important to me too!

      I haven’t been reading much lately, and I’ll have to catch up on your travels!!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh I am glad to hear that. Yes we all are becoming busy but alas travel is my happy drug! I cannot stay in one place for long as my feet is getting itchy haha! Seriously… I miss my hubby who stayed in Abu Dhabi while us came back here in NZ.

        Liked by 1 person

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