Communication let me down/And I'm left here...
-- Spandau Ballet, "Communication"
So I was rereading Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand after having an argument with an ex-boyfriend. He's accused me in the past of trying to manipulate him, which always flabbergasted and insulted me to hear. Even our mutual friends to whom I had talked about our problems were at a loss as to what he could have meant by that. After five years, I think I finally have some clue as to where he got that feeling.
It's on page 40 of my paperback edition; Tannen quotes the conversation of a woman with her lover, who is sleeping with other women:She: How can you do this when you know it's hurting me?Oh, God, yes. This ex of mind seemed to me to always interpret anything others wanted him to do as "ordering him around" -- sometimes he's had a bit of a problem with authority. And he never told me what he was feeling, not when we were dating (then I usually found out he was unhappy after things had stewed for days, when he shut himself in his room and played music really loud), nor afterwards when we were just friends (when if I found out anything of his life, it was from other people). Definitely Mr. Independent.
He: How can you limit my freedom?
She: But it makes me feel awful.
He: You are trying to manipulate me.
"On one level," Tannen says, "this is simply an example of a clash of wills: what he wanted conflicted with what she wanted. But in a fundamental way, it reflects the difference in focus I have been describing. In arguing for his point of view, the key issue for this man was his independence, his freedom of action. The key issue for the woman was their interdependence -- how what he did made her feel. He interpreted her insistence on their interdependence as "manipulation"; she was using her feelings to control his behavior."
On the other hand, I think I'm pretty independent myself. At least past boyfriends have seemed to want to absorb all my time and energy and not taken it kindly when I would rather read a book or fold laundry than spend every instant of non-class/work time with them. Hell, my communication style seems more "masculine" by Tannen's definition than my current boyfriend's last ex -- she took it a lot more seriously when he teased her and others than I do, not seeing it as a threat to our bond.
But apparently I don't understand "masculine" communication styles well enough. I want to be able to say when I feel uncomfortable with something, but my ex seems to feel that this is trying to guilt him into new behavior. Whether it's because I'm female, or because (as a sexual abuse book called Transforming Trauma said, because my abuser didn't seem to understand that I didn't like what was being done to me, so I want to be understood) -- for whatever reason, I want to talk to others, to explain myself and make sure they know how I feel. I don't mean it as an attempt to influence them, and I don't think it can be "manipulation" to tell the honest truth. The guy who has accused me of having manipulation in mind is a writer himself -- how can he write all kinds of works stating his feelings, from poetry to editorials, but feel mine have some motive?
We broke up over this kind of incompatibility, and even that experience hasn't taught us enough about each other to maintain a smooth friendship. The writer and the guy I see in person seem so different it's hard to believe they are the same person. I want to understand him, but so far I'm not having much luck; it's so different from the knowledge I have and the feeling that I understand most of my friends, if not completely, then enough to trust them. The realization about our styles of communication is a step, but understanding the communication problem is not necessarily enough to surmount it. We're on much better terms than when I originally started this essay, but it's depressing to think that there's no reason the disagreements can't start back up.
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