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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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.

Why Psychotherapy is like Kale

Psychotherapy is not easy, or fun. It’s good for me, even necessary, but I don’t love it. Psychotherapy is like kale: not nearly as tasty or enjoyable as homemade macaroni and cheese, or pizza, but sometimes, I have to force it down.

One of the biggest issues about not seeking help from a psychotherapist is that we rarely know why we display negative behaviors. Often, we react to stimuli based on a complex process of unresolved issues (or trauma) from childhood. Some behaviors are good, like holding a door for someone or not cheating on a test. But others include slamming the door in someone’s face, tearing up your husband’s baseball card when he stays out all night, or yelling at some unsuspecting cashier. Consistently negative behaviors harm us and can destroy relationships with people we love.

Before I turned 18, my birth mother ran out on us; my father remarried a physically and emotionally abusive woman; my step-uncle sexually abused me; my stepmother slept with one of my boyfriends; my older brother was killed in a motorcycle wreck; my younger brother was kicked out of every elementary school in our town; and I moved in with an abusive, cheating, drug-dealing boyfriend.

Phew. I realize there are millions of people who’ve suffered far worse tragedies than I did. I’m not searching for pity, only understanding, a willingness to see another perspective. A family member once said, “In my day, we didn’t go to therapy. We solved problems by ourselves.” Hmmm. This family member drank a six pack every night just so he could fall asleep. And he stayed in a marriage with a cheating spouse for 20 plus years.

At 21, I eloped with a man we’ll call Jon. This was one week after I admitted to my parents that I’d been sexually abused as a child. My father said, “You must have liked it because you never told us.” My stepmother said, “You’re just trying to cause problems.” Um, no. But before you hang these folks out to dry, I can assure you these are typical responses. (After my father divorced the nightmare, he spent the last 15  years of his life apologizing to me for the earlier response).

In the wake of Donald Trump’s accusers coming forward about his sexual misconduct, many people ask, “Why didn’t they come forward when it happened?” I echo comedian Seth Meyers’s response. For reasons that seem absurd, our society tends to blame the victims of sexual abuse. I was four when my uncle started abusing me and nine when I screamed, which sent him running from the room never to touch me again. If anyone says a four year old girl is asking for it, he or she should be flogged.

Often times, people who’ve been sexually abused as children become hyper sexual, engaging in risky behaviors like having unprotected sex with numerous people largely because their personal boundaries were destroyed. In addition, subconsciously, they’re scared of getting too close because others might get to know them and judge them for their “shameful” past.

For two decades, I moved guy to guy, always dumping a good one who loved me for someone who treated me like the piece of shit I thought I was. It was as if I were saying, “Don’t get close. I don’t want you to know the real me because I’m no good. I deserve to be with a piece of shit.” In recent years, science has offered new theories on addiction, drugs, sex, food, shopping, alcohol, saying it might have more to do with attachment disorder than genetics.

A theory is a theory, but it makes sense to me that someone who has lingering feelings of being discarded, neglected, and abandoned, might have serious problems with interpersonal relationships (lack of trust, PTSD, fear of authority). I have a solid circle of male and female friends, people I’ve known for years who love and support me. They appreciate my unfiltered speech, openness and honesty. But if you asked the men from my past what it was like to love me, you’d get another story.

After years of pushing good men away when they got too close, I ran out of luck. The man I shared a deep love and even deeper friendship with, the man I grew closer to than anyone in my life, drew a line in the sand. “If you don’t want me,” he said, “I’ll go.” It was the exact opposite of what I wanted and needed, but I was used to my past coping skills, so I let him go and moved on to the next guy. I also went into therapy.

In the year that followed, something happened. Through long discussions with a psychiatrist, talks with friends, and reading self-help books, I stopped. Instead of pointing my finger outward, I turned it on myself. I needed to excavate my painful childhood memories, unearth them, and examine them to set them free.

Over the past several months, I’ve been attending therapy once a week, including doing EMDR, which tastes like kale but is so good for me! Sometimes I break down bawling. Sometimes I just want to run. My therapist challenges me. I’ve processed one old memory and am working on a second. There are plenty more. But I feel more confident in my ability to move around in the world, to forgive myself and others, to recognize that the man I loved and lost did me a favor. He forced me to take stock of myself and see I am not my past, I can be better, but I need to do more work. It’s a long, long road, and at the end, I hope they have pizza.