Let Inga Tell You: Conflicting communication styles with your spouse? Can we talk?
Communication styles are the subject of endless magazine articles and online relationship quizzes. It is a topic that has long fascinated me, given that Olof and I have observed that our roles in our first marriages changed dramatically in our second. Some 180 degrees.
You wouldn’t think this was possible. It definitely takes some resetting of your self-view to find that your second spouse sees your strengths and weaknesses completely differently from the first one.
For example, Olof’s one misgiving about his first wife was that she came from a background where communication was never done directly. Trying to figure out what she wanted always felt like a jigsaw puzzle for which he seemed to be perpetually missing the edge pieces, and the big flower piece in the middle as well. Over time, he learned to read cues, pick up on nuances and fine-tune his intuitive skills. But it was hard work.
After they divorced, he told himself that if he ever married again, it would be with someone with more direct communication skills.
Now, however, it’s “Come back, wife with poor communication skills. All is forgiven.”
Olof, who is never, ever mean, has occasionally suggested in the nicest possible way that he has not a single, teeny-weeny doubt about how I feel about anything, including and especially about him.
As far as Olof is concerned, my “too much information” filter was broken at birth. But actually, it just runs in completely different directions than his. He’s an engineer and a former Air Force pilot, and most of his areas of TMI tend to exist in the murky underworld of “feelings.” A sentence that starts with “I feel” is not ever going to come out of this man’s mouth.
Now, keep in mind that Olof is hardly a curmudgeonly, undemonstrative kind of guy. He’s outgoing, universally liked (which I find very annoying), incredibly kind and has a great sense of humor.
In our marriage, ironically, I’m usually the one trying to figure out what Olof is thinking. Olof’s view of communication is that couples should be able to talk to each other about anything. So long as you never actually do it.
He will never offer an opinion about anything personal unless asked. Nay, begged. Actions, he maintains, speak louder than words.
OK, but as I’ve pointed out to him on more than a few occasions, sometimes words would come in really handy.
At this point in our lives, the only ongoing issue we have is about the dishwasher, a topic I’ve addressed several times. Olof graciously took over the dishes after he retired, although I think it might have been self-defense. I’m not the worst housekeeper in the world, although it has been suggested I’m a contender. (Was he a single, working carpooling Cub Scout-leading parent for 12 years? I think not.)
Housekeeping is definitely a role that has changed 180 degrees for me. Olof says it is too frightening to imagine that I was considered the neat one in my former marriage. My ex was, by his own admission, a total slob, although he preferred the word “casual.” I wrote a column about him packing up three weeks of unwashed dishes when he was moving out of his medical school apartment and storing them for the summer in my parents’ damp New Jersey basement. The smell lingered for a decade.
Olof, the communicative one in his first marriage, confesses he has a hard time seeing himself now as the less-communicative one in ours.
I think that from his viewpoint, offering solicited or unsolicited opinions about any aspect of a wife is a minefield to be avoided at all costs. He can visualize the grenades exploding on the serenity of his personal life, the conflagration of hard-earned husband points. But as for me being the “neat” one in my former marriage, he says if he’d been our cleaning lady, he would have shot himself.
Yet, in spite of numerous conversations, we still can’t agree about the dishwasher. I won’t belabor my previous columns on this subject, but he runs the dishwasher practically empty. It makes me nuts.
“Inga,” I have to say to myself. “Step away from the dishwasher! The man is doing the dishes. If he wants to run it with two friggin’ forks, let him!”
Those aforementioned self-help articles recommend using “I” in statements instead of “you” to resolve conflict, such as, “I need you to put more than three plates and a coffee cup into the dishwasher before you run it because it annoys the hell out of me.” Rather than: “Are you aware that our last dishwasher — loaded totally by me — lasted 18 years? That’s because it actually was full of dishes when I ran it. Do you understand?”
I think it’s all pretty clear.
Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in the La Jolla Light. Reach her at email@example.com. ◆
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