Learning to write, learning to hear

Rob and I are learning a new skill. At 31+ years of marriage, we are learning a new way to communicate. For all the good that we’ve shared, we’ve had an ongoing struggle with communication. The problem is not one of talking, it is one of hearing. He speaks, and I hear through my filters. That is to say, I don’t hear him; I interpret him. And sometimes he thinks he’s been clear and honest, but he hasn’t said the words that really speak the truth to me.

You can imagine the difficulties this has produced. Sometimes the problems are comical, sometimes frightening. This isn’t about the everyday speech of “pass the pepper.” Of course not. Even I can understand those words. This is about the thorny conversations of life. The what do I need, what do I want, what do I believe, what do I see…the ones that are full of individual angst and opinion. The ones that perhaps can only come after many years of togetherness.

In the very beginning of our relationship it was easy. We were young, we were focused, we had direction, we knew. You know so much when you’re young.

During the child-years, it was busy. We were on a roll, we were in harness, we were co-workers, co-habitaters, co-parents, co, co, co…we largely co-existed. There were a lot of good times, amazing experiences. It was fast and furious. Where did the 25 years of child rearing go? Gone in a blur of schedules, busyness, keeping milk in the house, getting to work, to school, to youth group, to church, to shopping, to appointments, to family, to vacation…wonderful years, but exhausting.

And now, after a few years of empty nest, we struggle. We are different people than the bright 20 year olds who made a life commitment. We are parents and grandparents, but we’re not in the daily trenches of those roles. We are post-career…we are not retired, but work is not all-consuming at this stage of life. In fact, that is one of the hallmarks of this phase. We are working less, making less, but enjoying more. We have margin. We have time, in the off-work blocks of life, to slow down, to talk again, to learn, to grow.

If all this sounds like we are self-absorbed, I would say no…I don’t think so. In fact, we’ve spent most of our adult lives being other-absorbed. And even now, life demands that we pay attention to work, to other relationships, to the needs of life. This is not about staring endlessly into the mirror, or into each other’s eyes.

It is about circling back. About seeing that we long neglected the primary relationship of our lives. We took care of pieces of it. But the real sharing, the real joining…that was largely neglected. I don’t think we’re alone in this. Isn’t that actually the common thread through most American marriages (I won’t pretend to speak for the whole of the married world here…just reflecting on the information I read regarding US marriages.) We come together, we create a life, perhaps we create children. But it’s hard to keep all the balls in the air. It is hard to be intentional and focused on the other adult in the equation with the never-ending need of everything else pulsing day-in, day-out.

As we’ve navigated the past years and challenges of our empty-nest adventure, we have learned some things. We’ve learned to feel comfortable again with a two-some, instead of the four-some we were for many years. We’ve acquired and practiced new skills for our new time in life. And we’ve made mistakes, a lot of mistakes. We’ve learned almost as much from doing it wrong as we have from getting it right. And maybe the mis-steps have been the ones that have waked us up, helped us to see that our relationship has had all it can take of being taken for granted. We’ve used up that credit in the trenches of child-rearing, career-building, and cruise-control.

So recently, after yet another ah-ha moment…a moment when we realized we had talked but not communicated…Rob picked up a notebook and wrote out, by hand, the words he wanted to say. A funny thing happened. I watched him write, and I waited to see what he was writing. Then I read the words, and gave him my response. He responded by writing, again. And I sat and waited, and read, again. And after a few rounds of this, we understood each other; we had communicated.

I’ve had varying degrees of success with writing therapy in the past. In some ways, it is very useful…you can collect your thoughts, express just what you want to say, and be sure you’ve chosen the best words. Or you can write to vent, and sometimes, after you’ve written out your frustrations, you don’t need to share them anymore. The drawback to the way I’ve experienced this in the past is that my writing was via email or texts. And the big ah-ha I’ve experienced with those forms of communication is:

  1. You can never know the time and circumstances that impact when an email or text is read; timing, mood, and context can color someone’s ability to hear your written words as you intended them to come across. You can’t put tone of voice in an email or text. Even punctuation can be misunderstood.
  2. The writer isn’t present to clarify or correct any misunderstanding…there’s no ability to see each other’s face, to be in the moment, so any misunderstanding could percolate for a while before it can be corrected, if it ever is.

Are we crazy? Is there anyone else out there who needs to find a way to break it down? To find a way to understand and absorb what the other person needs to say? Maybe we are outside the norm. I don’t know…having no other experience, I can’t assess that, other than through my impressions from what I read and hear. But something is amiss out there in marriage-land. Something is causing marriages to fail and homes to break apart. And the trend toward divorce at an older age is rising…this gets to the heart of the problem:  The Gray Divorces, Wall Street Journal

This is not a criticism of those who have been down this path. One of the realities of my own experience is a growing humility…I struggle with my own life and spouse…I am hardly in position to tell others where they got it wrong.

But I am able to share something we stumbled on that seems to help. Maybe it is the process of slowing the speech between us. Maybe the magic is in the ability to go back and read the words again, to let them sink in. I can’t say that I know exactly what is working. I just know that something is. We’ve had breakthroughs before, and certainly we’ve grown through our verbal conversation. But writing it down, even if the writing is largely on Rob’s part, and I am still largely speaking my words, seems to be making a difference.

I plan to stay with this grand experiment at life-long partnership. I plan to make it better, not merely co-exist. And so, between the work, the travel, the family, the friends, the errands, the mail, the stuff of everyday life that has to be tended, I plan to prioritize my partner. He deserves that place in my life. I promised it to him, years ago. For much of our lives, we’ve not kept that promise…we’ve run off infusions of togetherness, snatched on vacation, or hot-tub conversations on the weekend, or the big-emotion moments of life. But now, I see that we’re in a stretch…not the final stretch, I hope!…but a place that allows us to live differently. We don’t have to wait for alone time to talk about the big things of life…we have it every day. And we need to learn each other again, well beyond the selves we think we know so well…we need to learn how we’ve changed, and who we’ve become in this fifth decade of our lives.

So when the mood strikes for a deeper conversation…when the topic is something beyond, “what’s for dinner?”…we’ll talk. He’ll do some writing, I’ll do some reading, and respond; and we’ll hear each other. We’ll really hear each other.


  • May 2, 2013, 4:10 pm  Reply

    Sheila! This is a beautiful and thought-provoking post! I love it! So happy to hear that you are still embracing the need to improve communication. The entire world needs to do the same! xo

    • May 2, 2013, 7:12 pm

      Thank you! Better late than never, one of my life themes!
      And let me just say, I always love to see your smiling face! You radiate joy, Kate! ~ Sheila

  • May 3, 2013, 4:28 am  Reply

    Finding this also…and I think it’s ME who needs to try harder on this issue… I am a busy person…have outlets…but, my Bobby is much more absorbed with just being with ME…We have the communication problem also…Half hearing…half listening…maybe taking each other for granite… THINKING we know each other…but, after so many years…WE have both changed…Great insight Sheila…

    • May 3, 2013, 8:31 am

      Thank you Marilyn! I think this is really about recognizing that we all change and grow over time, and that the way we communicated years ago may not work today…or maybe there’s just more time to really hear each other now…best to you as you and Bobby continue to grow in your marriage! ~ Sheila

  • Ann
    May 7, 2013, 12:57 pm  Reply

    Thank you for another powerful post, Sheila. I dare say you are certainly not out of the norm in your communication struggles. The sad fact more likely is that too many couples resort to accepting a co-existing relationship without being determined, as you and Rob are, to do whatever it takes to make the sacred marriage relationship so much more than just that. Many couples long for deeper connections physically, emotionally, and even spiritually yet they are not willing to invest what it takes to get the return they desire. A little effort goes a long way and a lot of effort is life-changing! I would love to get a copy of this post into the hands of each couple at our church! Thank you for your boldness in addressing marriage challenges and sharing hope in improving relationships. Maybe writings such as this will help reverse the gray divorce trend.

    • May 13, 2013, 7:14 am

      Thank you Ann, for your encouragement! I stumble along in the dark sometimes, but then a little light appears! Maybe the best thing we have going for us is that we’ve stayed with it when it would have been easier, at times, to walk away. But it has been worth it, so worth it!
      Feel free to share with anyone you like…if anything I say is of help, that is humbling and moving. ~ Sheila

  • May 11, 2013, 6:04 am  Reply

    “And we need to learn each other again, well beyond the selves we think we know so well…we need to learn how we’ve changed, and who we’ve become in this fifth decade of our lives.”

    I can understand this very much; Hubbs and I have communicated fairly well for most of our marriage but in times of stress, he gets quiet and pulls away. I get louder and come in closer. We each have found our yin and our yang; sometimes communication is effortless, other times it takes great intention but I think that, under it all, is the fundamental desire to experience life together. Maturing has meant we’ve realized we’re not really all that similar — we have very different ways of breaking down a problem or going about a solution but – at the end of the day — we give thanks and say, “I’d choose you all over again.”

    Beautiful post and… whatever works, keep on doing it 🙂


    • May 11, 2013, 6:05 am

      p.s. I highly recommend “The Five Love Languages” http://www.5lovelanguages.com/

    • May 13, 2013, 7:10 am

      Thank you MJ! You’re one of my heroes in this marriage business! You seem to have it down. I’m always a work in progress, but the main thing is…I’m still working on it! Thank you for the encouraging words, both here, and when you post about your relationship on your blog…helps to know how others make it work! ~ Sheila

      • May 13, 2013, 5:33 pm

        no hero here — we are ALL a work in progress. For me what works is always asking — am I better off with him or without him? and I always come back to the same answer – so far – ha! 😉 MJ

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