Tell me how you really feel
Ah, love. Relationships. The meet-cutes we’ve all heard about. But what we all forget to ask at the outset of a relationship is, “Is your new squeeze an ‘under’ or an ‘over’?”
It’s because we are all blinded by cupid at the beginning. For example, things started off swimmingly for exhibit ‘A’—they were each a little misleading in their online profiles about their favorite pastimes but were both goofy enough to laugh about it—and bond over it. They have real love for real reasons. But now it turns out that his chatty need to share how he ‘feels about’ the shopping list (for example) doesn’t jibe with the strong silence she maintains even after her favorite uncle dies while racing her scooter. On the communications spectrum, he is an over-communicator and she is an under-communicator.
The how and why of feelings
In my life, I’ve been both. The over-communication came from the mixed blessing of growing up in a crunchy 80s family that kept a copy of “Free to Be You and Me” in the bathroom. It was never enough to say we were mad. We had to say how and why we were feeling ‘warm fuzzies’ or ‘cold pricklies’.
We had to detail our emotions and never triangulate, but rather speak directly to the person we had an issue with.
All that communicating was a hassle, and annoying (and often embarrassing) as a kid, but as I got older I realized how powerful it is to be able to attach ‘how’ and ‘why’ to your feelings. Especially during my first long-term, long-distance relationship which spanned high school, college, multiple continents, several affairs, and more than a dozen years—from age 16 to 29. Our communication was healthy and wonderful…and exhausting.
During the first few, minor relationships after the Big One I learned that I communicated too much for most partners. It turns out that most often, people don’t want to hear how you’re feeling about your day off—or your theory about communicating better. They just want to chill out, clip their toenails, and go to a Twins game. “Instead of thinking about ‘us’,” they said, “Can’t we just be ‘us’?”
The problem is, with a partner you’re actually going to stay with, you need to have those detailed, messy, in-depth conversations that neither of you wants to have.
That’s what went wrong in the five-year relationship I was in with ‘Clementine’ (she on the ‘non-communicator’ side of the spectrum), and with whom I bought a small house. We moved in with a big-boned cat, a comfy couch…and issues.
Instead of lounging like a communications couch potato, I should have been getting back in shape so I could force us to talk about all the daily junk—and not so daily junk—about us. There were things that needed to be brought into the light and looked at carefully if the relationship was to succeed. It didn’t.
I learned my lesson (or maybe I just got lucky) with my next partner, and that brings me to NOW. This time, shacked up for almost 10 years with someone who also sits in the ‘mums-the-word’ point on the communications spectrum (but who can communicate well and clearly when she has to), I’ve come full circle—and have some ideas for handling both the under and overs in your life.
First, the easy part: Be quiet, already!
Don’t confuse people who simply talk too much with those who over-communicate their emotions, because, frankly, one man’s over-communicator is another man’s muse. But if you have a real, live ‘over’ on your hands, you may have to pull a few tricks our of your bag, the most important of which is to set your boundaries and stick to them.
Keep a lid on it: If they’re relaying an issue that you’ve heard all about in the past—let your partner know it. Also, if you are being used more as a sounding board than an active partner in the conversation, ask them to keep their issues to themselves until they’ve figured them out. You can also request that the two of you limit such talks to a specific time and place to keep things contained. Another option is to re-channel the subject: turn the navel-gazing outward and ask how it applies to the bigger world. See if, together, you can turn the very specific into the very general. The local into the global, as if were.
Big trouble: If the conversations are about your partner’s need for you to change—and you don’t want to talk about it—well, then you have bigger fish to fry. Keep an eye out for next month’s installment, when we’ll examine some tried and true tactics to be used for under-communicators. Who knows, your partner just might try to use them on you and the tips might help you defend yourself…or improve communications for both of you.
—Sean Toren loves living the full catastrophe in Minneapolis with his wife and son. He can be contacted at email@example.com with thoughts or suggestions.