Check out this song by Tennessee blues artist, Lon Eldridge…
It’s an original tune, and I like it a lot. He’s clearly inspired by the blues, jazz, and big band greats…Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, BB King, Django Reinhardt, Lead Belly, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman…and this song of his inspired me to write a little piece about communication in relationships.
None of us are mind-readers, and it’s unfair to expect people to be. When I write characters, I try to make sure to portray communication hiccups realistically, because they occur all the time. No people are perfectly seamless communicators. And maybe my storytelling style is a little ‘feel-good,’ a little ‘Pollyanna,’ (I’ll own that) but I think working through miscommunication or lack of communication in positive ways…which always involves MORE communication, not shutting it down…is something I don’t see in fiction very often. Or reality either, for that matter.
I think this is a real problem men who are trying to be good partners to the women in their lives face. It made Mr. Eldridge write that song about it. I have a good idea about what a few contributors to this problem are.
Women have been implicitly but surely and effectively taught by societal norms and constructs that any expression of need or want or criticism (particularly of a man in any way, shape, or form…no matter how kindly phrased and constructive it is) makes us ‘difficult.’ Or maybe even ‘bossy’ or ‘needy’ or ‘bitchy,’ or…my personal favorite…’high maintenance.’ I personally have been told that I expect too much from other people (particularly men) my entire life. And that feedback has largely come because I will tell the truth when asked for opinions, and I’m not shy about enforcing my personal boundaries. Out loud and on purpose. But many, many women feel uncomfortable doing those things. They’ve been taught successfully through consistent, sometimes (if not often) harsh negative feedback when they do it, that calculated diplomacy, and if necessary, even suffering in silence is the way to go. (I don’t respond to negative feedback the way those who dole it out wish for me to, though, and I never have. It just makes me more stubborn and defiant. I’ve never ‘outgrown’ that.)
Women are told from the time they are little girls that politeness and accommodation and selflessness…putting everyone else ahead of them…being aware of what everyone else wants, how everyone else feels, and placing the utmost care and importance on it…are not only ideal, but *expected* from them. They’ve been told to ‘be nice,’ and they’ve adequately absorbed, ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.’
I agree that politeness and accommodation and selflessness are good traits…in ALL human beings, and I understand the ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say…’ sentiment. I agree that it’s significant and useful. But that’s to teach children (and maybe adults…of all genders) not to bully other people. Don’t make fun of someone for something they don’t control. Don’t say hateful, hurtful things to someone, like you think they’re ugly, or their project or behavior that you are not in charge of evaluating, and is not hurting anyone, was poorly made or ill conceived or not to your personal taste. Not everyone needs to hear every ‘not nice’ thought in your head. That’s true. Why go out of your way to ruin a person’s lunch break, day, week…life…with your words? But this phrase is not meant to silence a person when they are hurting or anxious or sad or angry, because we consider those feelings ‘not nice.’
Since women have been fed this lesson over and over since childhood, an unfortunate side effect that shows up in romantic thinking about relationships with men is that, ‘If he really loved me…knew me…cared…whatever…he’d just KNOW. I wouldn’t (shouldn’t) have to TELL him <not nice thoughts and feelings>…’
But men don’t know. They don’t know something they say or do, or something in life that has nothing to do with them is upsetting you and causing you undue stress *unless you tell them.* In fact…NO ONE knows that what they are doing or saying or that something in life is bothering you, *unless you tell them.* Your husband doesn’t know. Your boyfriend doesn’t know. Not unless you tell him so. He can probably tell you’re upset, if he has some empathy and a reasonable emotional intelligence quotient (and he might not have those…that’s not a character attack…there are people with autism and other ‘atypical’ wiring that just don’t…so they are even MORE in need of clear communication). But he won’t know WHY. Not unless you tell him. Zora Neale Hurston has this great quote…
That’s true in life in general, up to the global scale, but it’s especially needed in intimate relationships. Women need to voice their pain. And the flip side of this is…so do men.
Men have been largely conditioned since they were boys that stoicism equals strength. That if they talk about pain, sometimes empathize with other people’s pain, or even *actively avoid things that cause them pain,* it makes them weak. We’ve all heard ‘boys don’t cry.’ Which is dumb.
I went to high school with a kid that went on to be a star professional football player, and I am (or used to be at least) kind of a sports dork, so I loved following stories about him in sports media. I liked the media anyway, and I had sort of a personal connection to someone who was getting a lot of attention on it at the time. He got critiqued fairly often using this phrase, or a similar one: ‘He doesn’t like to get hit.’
Sportswriters called him ‘soft.’ Well…who, when given the choice between being hit at full force by a 250+ pound linebacker, and not, would choose to take that hit? I don’t feel like this made him an inferior football player, or an inferior man. I know a lot of men who live their emotional lives this way…afraid to NOT take pain so they won’t be accused of being ‘soft.’ Men aren’t allowed to feel soft emotions, even sometimes happiness, without that judgment. They are definitely supposed to not show sadness…fear…emotional hurt or sometimes even PHYSICAL hurt. My grandfather, my dad, even J and our son do this. But I personally want my son, and J, and the rest of the important men in my life to know they don’t need to cover up their pain with the false ‘strength’ of toxic masculinity, at least not on my behalf.
I wonder why the same action gets criticized in both men and women, but for conflicting reasons. Women who show honest emotion or enforce personal boundaries are volatile, irrational, sometimes domineering or cold, definitely hard to please, and it seems like they should be feared, whereas men who do the same are seen as whiny, cowardly, and overly sensitive and ‘feminine’ and weak…and consequently no one should fear them. It’s a mystery I’ve never been able to solve.
J and I spent our early relationship days (like I’m sure many other people do) bottling things up and hiding the ‘not nice’ emotions from each other to avoid ‘burdening’ the other person with our needs and desires and preferences, and to what end? The only thing we accomplished was slowing down achieving the harmony we currently have. I know it’s why many couples out there are unhappy, and why some of them break up…holding back honest communication, for whatever faulty, socialized reason.
I really think we all need to let it out. Communication, as clear as it can respectfully be, should be an aspiration in every relationship…friendship…family…romance. I really believe it makes for better, stronger, ultimately happier relationships. But we need to be accepting of each other’s thoughts and emotions so we all feel safe to express them. ‘Cause like Lon said…
“If it hurts you,
It’s gonna hurt me too,
But if you don’t tell me,
I won’t know what to do,
‘Cause baby, I love ya…
And I wanna please you…
But baby, I just can’t read your mind…
I ain’t no fortune teller.
I can’t read your future in your palm.
And I can’t tell what it is you’re thinkin’
By gazing in my crystal ball…
I love ya…
I wanna please you…
But baby, I just can’t read your mind.”