I’m Xander – Vanessa’s husband.
As you know, Vanessa is spending the month of November talking about communication. This is a tough topic for everyone… even for the two of us.
When I quit my job to join Vanessa’s business, we decided that we wanted to share some of our own stories about being a busy modern couple, trying to prioritize our relationship over all of the other things fighting for our attention. We all have issues when it comes to sex, relationships, and communication; Vanessa and I are no exception!
So this week we decided to try something a little different, and have me write this post. I’ll be sharing four stories about communication struggles Vanessa has had with me, and how we’ve learned to deal with them as a couple.
Vanessa’s Communication Struggle #1 – Rehashing Things
Many years ago, Vanessa and I were joking around about our relationship, and she asked me how often I annoy her. I teasingly responded, “At least once a day.”
Vanessa took offense, wondering why I would want to be in a relationship with someone who was annoying them constantly. But since it felt like we had just been joking around in that moment, I was only thinking about minor, cute “annoyances” such as Vanessa’s tendency to leave her laundry right next to the hamper instead of in it. Eventually, I was able to explain what I meant, she accepted my apology, and we moved on.
But for a long time, Vanessa would keep bringing up the fact that I was annoyed by her daily. She thought she was just being funny in rehashing the memory, but I didn’t like it because I knew she had felt hurt in the moment, and I didn’t want to perpetuate the idea that I might have daily grievances against my wife!
So we came up with a rule – once you’ve resolved a fight (i.e., discussed it, apologies made and accepted, etc.), you can’t bring it up again or hold it against the other person.
I highly recommend copying this rule in your relationship. Have one good, productive conversation about a particular disagreement, then don’t bring it up again.
Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows how exhausting it is to keep reliving the same fights over and over again, so this rule can work wonders. It helps you both feel like you can actually move forward in your relationship.
Vanessa’s Communication Struggle #2 – Saying Things Are OK When They’re Not
Vanessa is notorious for getting hangry (getting angry when you are hungry).
She has a particularly bad version of hanger where once she’s full-blown hungry, she doesn’t even want to eat anymore. Nothing sounds good to her. I know things are particularly bad when I ask her if she wants something to eat and she says, “It’s OK.”
This is part of a larger pattern that she has. Whenever she’s feeling stuck, she’ll respond to my questions: “It’s OK.” Should we go to so-and-so’s house? “No, it’s OK.” Did you want me to stop at the grocery store on the way home? “No, it’s OK.”
It’s frustrating because of course I know that it’s not OK!
In a moment of non-hanger, we had a discussion about it and came up with a solution to try together. We decided to eliminate “It’s OK” from both of our vocabularies.
Now, whenever I hear Vanessa say “It’s OK”, I remind her that that’s something we don’t say anymore. Then I gently push her to give me a yes or no answer, or tell me what she really wants instead of defaulting to “It’s OK.”
You can copy this tip too. Do you default to a similar phrase when you’re upset? Maybe “I’m fine” or “Nothing’s wrong.” Challenge yourselves not to use that phrase anymore.
Vanessa’s Communication Struggle #3 – Making Assumptions
Vanessa really reads into the delivery of language. She pays a lot of attention to subtle nuances in tone, body language, and delivery. It’s a skill she puts to really good use as a therapist!
But it’s a lot easier to be a good communicator with strangers than it is with your partner (this gets back to the suggestion Vanessa made earlier this month, of pretending your partner is a stranger!).
In our relationship, Vanessa often ends up assigning the wrong meaning to something I said. It doesn’t help that I’m often not very careful with my delivery. As a result, we end up having squabbles about what I actually meant with something I casually said.
Here’s an example of an interaction: Vanessa asked me if I’d like to go on a date night with her. In the moment, I was in the middle of concentrating on an complicated work project, and was too busy to start thinking about how I could stop working and go on a date. In that moment, I responded with a grunt. Vanessa took that to mean that I wasn’t excited about having date night with her, and her feelings were hurt.
But in reality, I wanted nothing more than to be out at a nice dinner with her. And my grunt was purely a reflection of my frustration about being stuck working on something.
It’s so easy for tiny interactions like these to turn into fights. Maybe you’ve noticed this in your relationship too.
In that instance, Vanessa lashed out, and said I wasn’t excited about date night. I didn’t like being told how I feel, especially since it didn’t line up with how I really felt (does anyone?). I got defensive and hurt in turn, and then felt like she didn’t believe that I genuinely was interested in date night. It turns into a horrible cycle.
What we’ve done to try to address this is to check our stories with each other.
Vanessa will share the story that she’s creating in her head with me. She’ll say to me, “OK, so the story I have in my head is that you’re not excited about date night.”
Then I get to explain what I meant or what was going through my head when I said or did something.
The simple act of naming it as “a story” makes it feel so much gentler for us both. Vanessa still gets to share the feelings and insecurities that are coming up for her, but I get to respond and clarify, instead of it turning into an argument.
Vanessa’s Communication Struggle #4 – Clamming Up
As much as good communication is a part of her job and a value in her life, sometimes Vanessa can really clam up with me! If she’s feeling overwhelmed or stuck, she’ll just stop talking altogether, and go off into her own little world.
It’s a frustrating enough tendency on it’s own. But it really becomes a problem for us because her communication issue triggers one of my communication issues.
I have a tendency to get scared in the middle of arguments, and think that they’re much bigger fights than they actually are. So I start to panic.
Most of the time, Vanessa will just be minorly annoyed, but I can get so worked up I’ll be worried that she’s considering divorce! Vanessa insists she’s never once come remotely close to thinking about that, but I can go to some intense places in my head in those moments.
Here’s an example: you may have heard Vanessa mention before that she’s 5’ tall and I’m 6’. Because of our huge size difference, I tend to bump into her frequently. It triggers insecurities for her, bringing back memories of being picked on and pushed around for her size. If a particularly bad jostling happens, she can get quiet for a while. And then I start worrying that she’s really upset.
I know it might sound crazy to you that bumping into each other has caused some big arguments in our relationship, but hey, all couples have their things, right?
The bottom line is that your communication stuff is going to come smashing up against your partner’s communication stuff, and vice versa.
So how have we tried to deal with it? Vanessa tries to be more upfront and say she just needs a few minutes to be by herself with her thoughts. She reminds me that this isn’t anywhere near relationship-ending. And I remind myself that she swears she’s never thought about divorcing me!
At the end of the day, what helps Vanessa and I most throughout all our communication snafus is to think of ourselves as a team. Teammates don’t always have the same skills or strengths; in fact, they almost never do. But it’s precisely those differences that make for a great team.
Vanessa and I each have our strengths and weaknesses, especially when it comes to communication. Instead of blaming each other when things go wrong, we do our best to better understand where the other is coming from, and think about how to work around our differences in the future, as a couple.
I think it might be easy for you to assume that Vanessa and I must have a perfect relationship by virtue of her profession, but I hope that our sharing these stories helps you realize that none of us are perfect. Relationships are all about learning and growing, and that’s exactly what we want to help you do with these posts.