Rob and I are learning a new skill. At 31+ years of marriage, we are learning a new way to communicate. For all the good that we’ve shared, we’ve had an ongoing struggle with communication. The problem is not one of talking, it is one of hearing. He speaks, and I hear through my filters. That is to say, I don’t hear him; I interpret him. And sometimes he thinks he’s been clear and honest, but he hasn’t said the words that really speak the truth to me.
You can imagine the difficulties this has produced. Sometimes the problems are comical, sometimes frightening. This isn’t about the everyday speech of “pass the pepper.” Of course not. Even I can understand those words. This is about the thorny conversations of life. The what do I need, what do I want, what do I believe, what do I see…the ones that are full of individual angst and opinion. The ones that perhaps can only come after many years of togetherness.
In the very beginning of our relationship it was easy. We were young, we were focused, we had direction, we knew. You know so much when you’re young.
During the child-years, it was busy. We were on a roll, we were in harness, we were co-workers, co-habitaters, co-parents, co, co, co…we largely co-existed. There were a lot of good times, amazing experiences. It was fast and furious. Where did the 25 years of child rearing go? Gone in a blur of schedules, busyness, keeping milk in the house, getting to work, to school, to youth group, to church, to shopping, to appointments, to family, to vacation…wonderful years, but exhausting.
And now, after a few years of empty nest, we struggle. We are different people than the bright 20 year olds who made a life commitment. We are parents and grandparents, but we’re not in the daily trenches of those roles. We are post-career…we are not retired, but work is not all-consuming at this stage of life. In fact, that is one of the hallmarks of this phase. We are working less, making less, but enjoying more. We have margin. We have time, in the off-work blocks of life, to slow down, to talk again, to learn, to grow.
If all this sounds like we are self-absorbed, I would say no…I don’t think so. In fact, we’ve spent most of our adult lives being other-absorbed. And even now, life demands that we pay attention to work, to other relationships, to the needs of life. This is not about staring endlessly into the mirror, or into each other’s eyes.
It is about circling back. About seeing that we long neglected the primary relationship of our lives. We took care of pieces of it. But the real sharing, the real joining…that was largely neglected. I don’t think we’re alone in this. Isn’t that actually the common thread through most American marriages (I won’t pretend to speak for the whole of the married world here…just reflecting on the information I read regarding US marriages.) We come together, we create a life, perhaps we create children. But it’s hard to keep all the balls in the air. It is hard to be intentional and focused on the other adult in the equation with the never-ending need of everything else pulsing day-in, day-out.
As we’ve navigated the past years and challenges of our empty-nest adventure, we have learned some things. We’ve learned to feel comfortable again with a two-some, instead of the four-some we were for many years. We’ve acquired and practiced new skills for our new time in life. And we’ve made mistakes, a lot of mistakes. We’ve learned almost as much from doing it wrong as we have from getting it right. And maybe the mis-steps have been the ones that have waked us up, helped us to see that our relationship has had all it can take of being taken for granted. We’ve used up that credit in the trenches of child-rearing, career-building, and cruise-control.
So recently, after yet another ah-ha moment…a moment when we realized we had talked but not communicated…Rob picked up a notebook and wrote out, by hand, the words he wanted to say. A funny thing happened. I watched him write, and I waited to see what he was writing. Then I read the words, and gave him my response. He responded by writing, again. And I sat and waited, and read, again. And after a few rounds of this, we understood each other; we had communicated.
I’ve had varying degrees of success with writing therapy in the past. In some ways, it is very useful…you can collect your thoughts, express just what you want to say, and be sure you’ve chosen the best words. Or you can write to vent, and sometimes, after you’ve written out your frustrations, you don’t need to share them anymore. The drawback to the way I’ve experienced this in the past is that my writing was via email or texts. And the big ah-ha I’ve experienced with those forms of communication is:
- You can never know the time and circumstances that impact when an email or text is read; timing, mood, and context can color someone’s ability to hear your written words as you intended them to come across. You can’t put tone of voice in an email or text. Even punctuation can be misunderstood.
- The writer isn’t present to clarify or correct any misunderstanding…there’s no ability to see each other’s face, to be in the moment, so any misunderstanding could percolate for a while before it can be corrected, if it ever is.
Are we crazy? Is there anyone else out there who needs to find a way to break it down? To find a way to understand and absorb what the other person needs to say? Maybe we are outside the norm. I don’t know…having no other experience, I can’t assess that, other than through my impressions from what I read and hear. But something is amiss out there in marriage-land. Something is causing marriages to fail and homes to break apart. And the trend toward divorce at an older age is rising…this gets to the heart of the problem: The Gray Divorces, Wall Street Journal
This is not a criticism of those who have been down this path. One of the realities of my own experience is a growing humility…I struggle with my own life and spouse…I am hardly in position to tell others where they got it wrong.
But I am able to share something we stumbled on that seems to help. Maybe it is the process of slowing the speech between us. Maybe the magic is in the ability to go back and read the words again, to let them sink in. I can’t say that I know exactly what is working. I just know that something is. We’ve had breakthroughs before, and certainly we’ve grown through our verbal conversation. But writing it down, even if the writing is largely on Rob’s part, and I am still largely speaking my words, seems to be making a difference.
I plan to stay with this grand experiment at life-long partnership. I plan to make it better, not merely co-exist. And so, between the work, the travel, the family, the friends, the errands, the mail, the stuff of everyday life that has to be tended, I plan to prioritize my partner. He deserves that place in my life. I promised it to him, years ago. For much of our lives, we’ve not kept that promise…we’ve run off infusions of togetherness, snatched on vacation, or hot-tub conversations on the weekend, or the big-emotion moments of life. But now, I see that we’re in a stretch…not the final stretch, I hope!…but a place that allows us to live differently. We don’t have to wait for alone time to talk about the big things of life…we have it every day. And we need to learn each other again, well beyond the selves we think we know so well…we need to learn how we’ve changed, and who we’ve become in this fifth decade of our lives.
So when the mood strikes for a deeper conversation…when the topic is something beyond, “what’s for dinner?”…we’ll talk. He’ll do some writing, I’ll do some reading, and respond; and we’ll hear each other. We’ll really hear each other.