I was with my daughter at a youth event the other night when I received a text from my husband that made me laugh out loud. He texted, “Your speech texting is the worst……or should I say, your pee testing is the works.” I immediately reread the text I had previously sent which Siri interpreted as, “One of the ports people supposed to come?” I think it was supposed to be, “When are the porch people supposed to come?” (in reference to repairing our porch…not the people inhabiting the porch).
I have developed a bad habit of texting with speech recognition because it is so much faster and more efficient, but in my rush I rarely proofread and even if I do, since I know in the original meaning of what I want to say, I think my family members will be able to decipher my cryptic messages. Somehow I haven’t learned that if Siri doesn’t know what I’m trying to communicate, it is unlikely that they will know either. I resist playback audio messages because they are easier for my family to ignore. Typing just takes too darn long. Apparently, proofreading does as well. In the end, if my messages can’t be interpreted then they aren’t efficient at all.
One of my favorite examples is from last October when I voice texted, “I got your dad a Pharaoh hat to wear for Halloween,” and the message read, “I got your dad a feral cat to wear for Halloween.” My children are constantly telling me (usually in capital letters) to “STOP USING YOUR VOICE RECOGNITION MOM!!!!” Or “MOM! PROOFREAD OR STOP! SERIOUSLY!!!!” (“Siri-ously?” is my sometimes response). To make his point, my son texted me, “You moist hyped cat,” (I know…eww) to demonstrate that he knew from reading my previously sent message that I “voice typed that.” I was tempted to type “Your neutered attempt,” for “You knew what I meant.”
The main problem is that I mistakenly think my family is going to know what I meant because it is so clear to me. It occurred to me later that I observe a similar process A LOT between couples when they are verbally communicating. The person sending the message knows exactly what they are trying to say, but when it passes through the filter of the person receiving the message, something entirely different can be heard. I realize that this is Communication 101, but I think it worth revisiting because it continues to be a huge problem between couples, particularly because feeling understood is such a crucial component of couple connection (maybe that will be the alliterative title of my next couple presentation).
I can be sitting in a room and watch a spouse say something, igniting a partner into a flurry of defensiveness. I’ll say, “Hold on. What just happened? What did you just hear?” Often, the partner will repeat back something entirely different than what the person said. On many occasions, I have said, “OK, I did not just hear those words and I was sitting right here, but I know that somehow you did hear those words, so please help me understand what this reminds you of in your past interactions?” Then, my clients can provide me information explaining why they heard it differently, which usually includes their previous experiences with the partner. They in essence add complex layers of meaning to the primary message, largely driven by the past.
Here’s an example of something that might typically be said in therapy, and it is not gender specific. This same conversation could occur from wife to husband:
Husband: It’s not that I don’t care about you or about us. I just don’t want to bring anything up about our relationship because I’m afraid it will turn into a 4-hour conversation and I’ll say everything wrong end up feeling crappy at the end of it anyway, so I avoid talking to you about that stuff.
Wife: So you’re saying it’s all my fault that we have a bad marriage? You’re basically saying that because I’m a witch then you can’t be bothered to talk to me.
This is usually followed up by a litany of attacks on the other person’s character with a counter-attack strategy by the spouse as well as lots of solid evidence from the past supporting each partner’s position thrown out for good measure (Phew). None of it, however, is at all useful for building connection.
Besides interpreting messages, our brains are excellent at recognizing potential threat based on our knowledge and past experiences in order to protect us from actual threat, and painful interactions with a partner are just that…threatening. Our brains instantly recognize and warn us before we even have the cognitive awareness that this is happening…any marriage therapist can attest to this. It’s the same fight or flight process you experience in everyday life.
For example, I often run in the foothills. On three occasions, I have had an immediate startle response to perceived threat in which I recoiled and my heart started racing and I jumped in a different direction to avoid the stimulus. Why? Because my brain thought I saw a snake in the path. I say “my brain,” because I reacted before I even realized why. It was automatic. On one occasion, the “snake,” was a dark piece of rope in the path, once it was a piece of tree branch, and once (my personal favorite), it was a snake skin left behind by a calculating snake, no doubt determined to frighten runners as payback for encroaching on his territory.
Couple interactions can be so similar. When you are married to someone, you interact with them in habitual and sometimes painful ways, so your brain recognizes potential threat and mobilizes your body to protect itself, which is the fight or flight response, also referred to as “fight, freeze, or flee.” Couples will do just that…fight or freeze or flight…or some variation of that. People seem to have alarm bells go off in their heads, warning them of their spouses. A message seems to scream, “Danger. You have been hurt before so protect yourself. This person can harm you.” It is lightning fast….faster than you realize it is happening. When this reactivity occurs with your attachment partner, it can be quite an emotionally laden event.
This is, at least in part, why one thing can be said but we hear something else. There is also the ongoing pesky problem that people just have templates of recall and experience that are entirely unique from each other, so when you say the word, “dog,” I might think , “terrier,” and my husband might think, “black lab,” and yet we don’t take the time to check in and clarify differences.
So what do you do about it? If this were texting, it may be as simple as proofreading (except not really, because then you have to deal with the absence of nonverbal cues…sometimes I have to add instructions to my text, i.e. “to be read in irritated voice…you left your stinky, nasty socks out on the floor again”). At least if it is written out, you can see it and then just blame Siri for messing up what you meant to say, but it’s not that easy, because you may not know what your spouse even heard based on what you said.
Here are a few reminders for dealing with the mind meld challenge:
- Realize that your partner is not a mind reader. Be as clear as possible. It is unfair and uncharitable to expect your partner to just know something in the absence of a clear message.
- Realize that almost always, even when you are trying to be very clear, your spouse has a filter and will hear something differently than how you said it. Expect it. Check in on it from time to time. Laugh about it. People say they know this, but they continually act surprised when their spouses interpret something differently. Why? Because it is so hard to imagine that other people experience the same event so differently. Once many years ago, I made an offhand comment about trying to figure out how to make our grocery budget work, because we had a very set grocery budget, and what my husband heard was, “You are not a good provider.” It made me sad to know that’s what he thought I thought, when I was not thinking that at all…I was in fact questioning my own strategy in making the budget work. It is so difficult to get outside of oneself.
- Realize that your brain is always searching for and reacting to potential threat. Your brain will automatically search for similarities and link present events to past experiences. You must be open to the possibility that your spouse really may be seeing or trying it differently this time (especially if that has been made explicit).
- Slow down and practice mindfulness during the conversation. Watch yourself for reactivity and breathe and then clarify gently meaning in the present.
- Lower your voice and talk softer on purpose. The natural tendency is to speed up and get louder. Purposely talk softer and slower. It helps for staying mindful.
- Repeat back what you thought you heard. Even though this can be useful, I resist teaching specific “communication skills,” because too much of the time they are more problematic than useful. They can be used ironically, they can be hard to remember, your partner can criticize your execution of the skill, and they just seem gimmicky to me. I prefer a more organic process, but it really can be helpful sometimes to say, “So is this what you meant?” Just stay slow and soft (but only if you don’t want to end up in a fight).
- Most importantly, KEEP TRYING! Repetition matters A LOT! Couples who work at it really do get better, but sometimes it can take a long time. I have couples work at it who took a year or two to really improve and solidify their patterns. People in general just give up too darn fast.
Here’s an idea. Before you talk to you spouse, try Siri’s voice recognition, speak paragraphically, and see how inaccurately Siri interprets the message. This may remind you to be more patient with your spouse.
Remember, Shakespeare said, “The course of true love never did run smooth,” or, in the words of 21st century poet, Siri, “The cursive two loves ever did young soothe.” Figure that one out!