What We've Got, Dear, is Failure to Communicate
A personal confession of how my wife and I struggle to transmit and receive messages to and from one another
One evening I came home from work, walked into the house and headed down the hall toward the kitchen. My wife Barbara heard me from our bedroom upstairs and called down, “I just mopped the kitchen floor!”
“Okay, thanks!” I called back.
A few minutes later Barb came downstairs and found me standing in the kitchen with my head in the refrigerator.
“I told you that I just mopped the floor!” she cried, exasperated.
“Yes, I heard you,” I replied.
“So why are you in the kitchen?”
“It’s okay,” I reassured her. “I am being very careful not to slip and fall. Thank you for the warning.”
Barb looked at me incredulously. “That’s not why I told you!” she moaned. "The floor needs to dry before you walk on it.”
"Oh," I said sheepishly, looking down at the black marks my shoes had made. "Ah, now I'm pickin' up what you're puttin' down."
That's the phrase Barb and I often use when we acknowledge our understanding of one another. We learned early on that we need such a phrase in order to practice what all the experts on relationships say is the key to longevity in a marriage, i.e., good communication. My wife and I have tried pretty hard to keep the communication flowing for the past 33 years. We talk about the important and the difficult, the everyday and the mundane. We tell each other our feelings and opinions, and we do it even when they might clash with those of the other spouse. We talk a lot.
But as evidenced by the previous example, that doesn’t mean we always communicate on the highest level. We say intelligible words, but efforts to make our transmission precise do not ensure that the reception is accurate.
The wet floor incident is why Barb and I came up with a second phrase to help us. Together, the two phrases make up what we call the “And By That You Mean?” strategy. It works like this: If Barb says, “Something’s wrong with the upstairs toilet,” I might assume she means, “Be sure to use the toilet downstairs instead” until I ask, “And by that you mean?” whereafter she says, “By that I mean I'd like you to fix it.”
Only then can I employ the phase of confirmation, "Ah, now I'm pickin' up what you're puttin' down."
If I say to Barb, “Your SUV is almost out of gas,” she might assume that what I mean is, “You can take my car to the grocery store.” But if she asks, “And by that you mean?” I would tell her, “I mean that you’d better stop by the gas station before you go to the grocery store; I’m taking my car to Home Depot to get a part for the toilet.”
By using these handy phrases we allow ourselves the opportunity to discuss matters with all the relevant information completely on the table, the result being a thorough understanding of one another's meaning and intentions as I end up leaving the house in the SUV to get gas before I go buy the toilet part and then stop off at the grocery store. It's a very effective system.
Despite our best efforts, there are at least two communication problems that we have not yet found solutions for, and we would certainly welcome any suggestions. The first happens most often when we're in the car and one of us begins a lengthy monologue on a topic that might be incredibly fascinating to the speaker, but much less captivating to the other spouse. The conversation might go like this:
"Okay if I turn on some music?" I ask. "How about some Beach Boys?"
"Sure," Barb answers.
I slip in a CD and out from the speakers comes the familiar "Round round get around, I get around" and we sing along for a verse and chorus until I begin a soliloquy. "You know the Beach Boys were able to create most of their great harmonies live in concert," I jabber. "Of course when Brian Wilson stopped touring, someone else had to sing the high harmonies."
After a short pause I drone on. "The permanent replacement for Brian on stage was Bruce Johnston. For years he played concerts and sang on the records but never got his picture on the album covers. A lot of people don't know it, but Bruce wrote the big Barry Manilow hit 'I Write the Songs.' He's the only Beach Boy to ever win a Grammy for 'song of the year,' and it wasn't even a Beach Boy song. Pretty amazing, huh?"
The question hangs in the air until Barb, suddenly aware of the silence, looks over at me and says, "Oh I'm sorry, my mind was elsewhere. You were saying Barry Manilow's grandma wrote this song?"
The other issue is similar, but concerns our overall communication styles. I speak and listen in what I would call a linear way. In my view, every conversation should have a beginning, middle and end. On the other hand, my wife is constantly multi-tasking, and because her brain is moving a mile a minute, she communicates in a more free-flowing, more spontaneous fashion. She has the uncanny ability to bounce from topic to topic like a pinball in a high-scoring arcade machine. I, on the other hand, am more like Pac-Man, methodically chewing on a topic until a change of direction becomes necessary and one of us sends an obvious verbal cue, such as, “I’m changing the subject now,” or “Let’s now talk about something completely different.”
Here's what happens when our disparate communication styles collide: We might be talking about planning a trip to see our grandkids and I’ll say, “I think next weekend would be good.” Then one second later Barb will say, “I’m going to have to work.” So I reply, “Well then, can we go the following weekend?”
Barb then looks at me as if I had just spoken something in Klingon. “What are you talking about?” she asks.
“You said you have to work next weekend, so I suggested we go see the grandkids the weekend after that.”
"I didn’t say I have to work next weekend,” she counters..
“You said you’re going to have to work. Those were your words.”
“Right,” she says. "I was saying that I’m going to have to work if dinner's going to be ready in the next hour. Really, Nick, you need to keep up with the conversation when it moves on.”
Despite our communication breakdowns, the two of us have managed to somehow talk through the big stuff all these years and wind up on the same page. I'll admit we don't communicate perfectly, and we don't always agree, but I'm convinced we are nevertheless perfect for one another. And I fully anticipate that years from now, when the time comes for us to say goodbye, I'll whisper to Barb on my deathbed, "Darling, I need you to pick up what I'm puttin' down; I have loved almost every moment I have ever spent with you."
To which she will no doubt reply, "And by that you mean?"
© Nick Walker 2018
Do you and your significant other have any communication problems? Maybe you have some advice for my wife and me? Feel free to share a comment below.
Thanks to the movie Cool Hand Luke for the title of this post.