Navigating Different Communication Styles

Over the past 18 months, I’ve been meeting with a behavioral therapist, as often as once a week. When I started, I had been sitting in a pit of despair after realizing too late what a special and rewarding relationship I had with my husband of nine years. I had turned 40 in 2008 and sort of lost my mind over the next two years. The collateral damage incurred by us and our sweet family post-split still nags at all of us. We are healing, albeit slowly.

Through my therapy I’ve learned that one of the issues “Eric” and I dealt with during our marriage and divorce involves our vastly different communication styles. We are similar in that we’re both passionate, quick-tempered and stubborn. However, I am a moving-toward quick-processing extrovert (MTQPE), and he is a moving-away slow-processing introvert (MASPI). Night and day. Black and white. Scorpio and Taurus.

Defining the styles. Moving-toward means I’m the woman who talks to strangers and wants to save the world even when it’s inconvenient for me. Moving-away Eric hangs in the background and observes the scene before he makes a move. The night we met, I walked up to his adorable self at Little Harry’s Airport Bar in Lewiston, Idaho, and said, “Hi. I’m Cindy. Wanna buy me a drink?”

Eric likes to listen and assess, and he’s good at both. I like to chat, on and on, and recharge when I’m around people. Eric recharges by spending time alone. Quick-processor me can call him on a Monday at 8:00 a.m. and say, “Wanna take the kids to the theme park this Friday? Do ya? Huh? I’ll drive. I’ll buy the tickets. What do you think? Huh?” Slow-processor Eric would probably take a minute to answer: “I don’t know. Let me check and get back to you.”

When you’re in love with someone, these differences seem minor. But after years of mistaken assumptions and misinterpreted silence, they can wear on a person, even destroy an unexamined relationship. And then, when you’re in the middle of a breakup, these differences cause real arguments.

Being aware and strategic. Eric lives in his head much of the time (he’s amazing at self-reflection) but I process my life out loud, through talking. If you are a MASPI, like Eric, I would drive you bonkers. If he has anything on his plate, work issues, personal stuff, bills, he would prefer to slide the theme park to the bottom of the stack until he was ready to tackle it simply to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Meanwhile, I’m doing aerobics, playing paddle ball with one hand and whirling a figdget spinner in the other.

Eric and I have been divorced six long years. In the past ten months, we have been scheduling monthly “conversations” where we talk about the kids, our lives, and manage our different communication styles. One of the most important things I’ve learned relies on the premise that my style is no better than his style. They are simply different. In this post-therapy stage we’re in, Eric and I work hard to treat each other with dignity, and examine and respect the styles.

Being versus foreseeing. Being an MTQPE, I would love to know exactly when I’m going to see and talk to Eric. I recharge when I’m around him. But, when a moving-toward person moves too quickly or too often, a moving-away person tends to get his energy zapped and needs more space. That is a style, not necessarily a strategy.

Eric is content just being. He doesn’t need to plan every movement of his day or his life. I, on the other hand, want to see into my future. When will we meet again? When we will talk again? Forward, forward, forward. One of the things my therapist helps with is my feeling comfortable in the not knowing. (Eric tries to meet me halfway by communicating more.)

We are less than a year into this process of trying to communicate effectively. We stumble. We piss each other off. We spend hours laughing. It’s an unpredictable way of living. But, I am slowly gaining comfort and working to make him feel safe in my presence. The closer we can come to meeting in the middle, the better off we’ll be.

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Loose Lips Can Float Ships

For the first two days of 7th grade, my friends (with whom I’d been thick for three years) ignored me. They literally did not speak to or interact with me for two school days. Confused by the treatment, but afraid to ask why they were snubbing me, I pretended not to care and sat with others in the cafeteria, while my former friends looked on.

During lunch on the third day of 7th grade, my friends invited me to their table. One said, “We weren’t going to talk to you this year.” I nodded as though I understood but wondered how they might ignore me for an entire year. Studies on human behavior show that being shunned is a universal fear. We all want to be accepted by our peers. Middle school seems to be the place where we experience both.

Over the next two years, I shunned and was shunned, bullied and was bullied, made some friends for life, and gossiped incessantly. (Perhaps that’s why my friends shunned me.) Looking back, I see my gossiping as a way to get attention and gain friends. Instead, it made people avoid me or want to kick my ass. As I came of age, even into my 20s, my loose lips continued to get me into trouble. I had to take a good look at myself and see my fingers were pointing in the wrong direction.

As I got into writing, and made friends with other writers, I discovered we are a gossiping bunch. We love to get to “the truth,” find out what goes on behind-the-scenes, and tell stories, which are good things. What I’ve learned, however, is that it’s safer and often more powerful to tell stories about myself and the dumb things I do. Some of my favorite comedic writers, Margaret Cho, Dave Chapelle, John Mulaney, and Conan O’Brien, make fun of themselves. Laughing at our humanity brings us together.

The older I get, the more I want to preserve my friendships. I try to share positive gossip. Who got a job? Who got married? What’s going on in town? I also try to think before I start yammering on. I’m far from perfect but am commited to working on this part of my personality. If we can’t invite others to our table and make connections, why are we even here?

 

The Swap

I lob my heart over to your side of the fence,
play five games of paddle-heart simultaneously,
try to keep busy, wait- wait- wait for you
to toss yours over. You catch the bloody mess
and try to hang on, crimson liquid trickling
down your arm. You observe the irregular
shape, study its pulsing blue veins, wonder,
perhaps, why I pitched it to you in the first place—
was it love? Or was I trying to fool you,
let the form fuse itself to your body, only to
snatch it away because your grip gave me
goose pimples. At one time, I might have said,
Hello-ooo. When the hell do you plan to finish
the swap? But I’ve learned that when I wait,
you surprise me, eventually climb over the fence,
deliver your heart in person, rest it in my hand,
remind me that wonderful things happen when I keep
quiet the beast clawing its way out of my chest.

Where Are You, Gen Xers?

My current job, working as the Senior Writer/Editor for a foundation at a land-grant university, involves sharing stories, Tweets, photos, and more on various social media. Most recently, on #GivingTuesday, I was checking out articles on LinkedIn, one of which mentioned “how to get Millennials to donate.” Since two of my children are Millennials in their early 20s, and I volunteer for another local foundation, I clicked on the link.

About 2/3 of the way into the article, I came across a paragraph that compared Millennial philanthropic trends with Baby Boomer trends. I kept reading, waiting to see how Gen Xers felt about philanthropy. Guess what? There was no mention of Gen Xers in the entire article. Zip. Zero. Zilch. So, I became curious. And like a Millennial, I went to Google and typed in Generation X.

Suddenly, a whole new world opened to me. I was born in 1968 and have always considered myself a Gen Xer. With a brother born in ’66 and one in ’75, I’m also the middle child. Coincidentally, Gen Xers are called the Neglected Middle Child, mostly because there are 70 million plus Boomers and 70 million plus Millennials, and there are only 50 million plus Gen Xers. Why the discrepancy? Well, lucky for us, even though the hippies were having a lot of sex, in the early 70s, birth control and legalized abortion helped them have fewer children.

After visiting a few more websites, I found conflicting information regarding the specific dates that designated a person as a Gen Xer. My theory holds at this: Gen Xers were born in between the early 60s and the early 80s. And, similar to astrology, if your birthdate straddles those years, you are said to be on the cusp, or a cusper. So, my uncle John, for instance, who was born in 1965, probably has Boomer and Gen Xer traits.

When I think about my being a Gen Xer, I think about being a child of divorced Boomer parents who needed to “find themselves,” walking everywhere by myself, and being raised on or by television. I often joke that my father (a single parent until I was six) used the TV as a babysitter. Through my research, I discovered I wasn’t alone. Many, if not most, Gen Xers were left home alone with little more than the TV and their siblings to keep them company. It’s probably why we love pop culture!

On a positive note, Gen Xers are independent, resilient, hard-working, and have a sardonic wit. I remember bristling, years ago, when I heard us called the “Slacker Generation.” WTF? When I was 12 I got a paper route. And from that moment on, my father gave me no more spending money. So then I worked as a babysitter. Then as a lifeguard. McDonald’s manager. Nursing home diet aid. Retail sales. Bakery cashier. Then, when I was 20, I joined the navy to get the G.I. Bill because my father wouldn’t help me pay for college.

I’m happy to report we are the generation responsible for creating Hip Hop and paving the way for ethnic diversity. When I think of my childhood, I think of Sesame Street, Captain Kangaroo, and the Electric Company, which we watched in second grade as part of our curriculum. Also, with my father, I watched shows like Good Times, What’s Happening, Laugh In, and the Sonny and Cher Show.

On a negative note, Gen Xers, because we were almost always left alone, referred to as the “latchkey” kids, and were often physically and sexually abused, have become the “most devoted parents in American history.” Some folks call us “helicopter parents.” Guilty as charged. Both of my adult daughters failed out of college, although they grew up watching me bust my butt to earn a BA, an MA, and an MFA, all in writing. I did that without parental support. My daughters have oodles of support. Have I killed their ability to stand on their own?

Anyway: this post is a plea. If you’re a Gen Xer, I want to hear from you! After all, peers are more important to us than parents. I plan to continue my research. If you want to share a story with me, please email me at cindyjoy68@gmail.com.