A Marriage Story or Two: Communication Styles

While I’m on the topic of communication styles, here’s a more personal situation about another lesson learned over the past five years.

The scenarios

Conversations are exaggerated for demonstrative purposes.

Story 1:

Steve: What’s wrong?

Corrie: I dunno.

Steve: No, really, what’s wrong?

Corrie: Ummmmm. Ummmmm. Ummmm.

[Pause. Steve begins to tap his foot impatiently.]

Corrie: I feel upset because you snapped at me during dinner.

Steve: Oh, I did? I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?

Corrie: Yes.

[Kiss, kiss.]

Story 2:

Corrie: What’s wrong?

Steve: I’m not happy with the way things are. We’re going to become old married people who never talk to each other in restaurants.

Corrie: Why do you say that?

Steve: Well, in the car, you always have a book! You’re always reading. I mean, as soon as the car starts moving, out comes the book.

Corrie: So do you want me to stop reading in the car?

Steve: Well, it’s not even that. I mean, I don’t mind you reading in the car, I really don’t.

Corrie: Huh…?

Steve: It’s just that we don’t talk. You know? Like, we don’t talk in the car. We don’t talk at dinner.

Corrie: Uhhhh — but we just had that great conversation the other night!

Steve: No, I don’t mean that we don’t talk. We just don’t talk! But — you’re right. We did talk the other night. I guess I just think that we don’t really talk about many significant things. It’s like all we do is just talk about what happened during the day. But we don’t, you know, have discussions or talk about important things.

Corrie: So, what kinds of things do you want to talk about?

Steve: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t want to have to like, make a list or something. That’s wayyyy too structured for me. But I guess it’s not like I have much to talk about anyway. Maybe that’s the problem. I don’t feel like I have a purpose! I’m not doing anything of significance! My job sucks!

Corrie: I’m so confused.

Steve: Sorry. I guess I think we’re doing okay, we really are. We have a great marriage. I just hate my job!

Corrie: I’m sorry you don’t like your job, but I’m glad you’re happy with our marriage!

[Kiss, kiss.]

The analysis

I’m poking some fun at myself and Steve with these somewhat caricatured conversations, but they aren’t too far off the mark! And they demonstrate our contrasting communication and processing styles.

I’m an internal processor, which means that I have to dive deep within, sift through my feelings, then put words to my feelings in my own mind, before I can say them out loud. This makes words very important to me, as they express exactly how I’m feeling and what I mean. In my first story, when Steve first asked me what was wrong, I had only vague feelings of discontent. It took me some time (which used to frustrate Steve) to figure out what was going on inside of me. Once I figured it out, though, I was able to say and communicate it fairly clearly.

Steve, on the other hand, is an external processor, which means that he understands himself by talking things out. He, too, had a vague feeling of discontent, but it took a lot of talking on his part, with me asking questions, to understand what was going on with himself.

The conflict occurs when we interpret the other by our own standards of processing and communication. Steve gets frustrated with my “thinking silences,” as he doesn’t know what’s happening inside of me or what I’m thinking. He misinterprets my silence to mean that I don’t care enough to engage with him. On the other hand, I get frustrated because as a valuer-of-words, I hear and believe everything he says and get confused when he makes conflicting statements, or get derailed when he ends up going off on a totally different topic.

We’re still in the process of learning how to talk with each other, but we have found a few things that are helping:

  • I make faltering attempts to process externally for Steve’s benefit. I usually have to make a qualifying statement that I’m “still thinking about this,” but that gives me the freedom to say something that I might not really mean. Steve appreciates this because there isn’t a huge gap in the conversation, and he gets to see a glimpse of what happens inside my head.
  • Steve tries to give me a bottom line for my benefit at the end of the conversation, distilling his “true thoughts” that have come out so that I can file it away and discard the rest.
  • We both try to ask more questions. For Steve, I try to ask questions that I think will help his thinking process, as I’ve learned it’s very important for him to be able to talk things out. Steve asks me questions to get more detail beyond the “summary” that I offer him.
  • We touch and cuddle when talking about hard things to help show non-verbally that we care about each other. (I would mostly recommend doing this with someone who is your sweetie! Otherwise, it could be… awkward.)

Where do you fall in the spectrum of internal-to-external processing? Does this also match up with introversion/extroversion (in terms of whether other people drain you or energize you) for you? (It does for us — I’m much more introverted than Steve.)

9 thoughts on “A Marriage Story or Two: Communication Styles

  1. hmmm – I think I’m a private, external processor. I don’t do well just thinking the thoughts in my head; I have to get them out. But I don’t like talking about them with people til I know what I think. So I journal. I write out my thoughts and get them untangled, and then I can share whats going on in me. When I don’t write stuff out, the thoughts remain tangled up still, and I can’t make heads or tails of them. Does that count as external, even though its written?

  2. Hummmm. Well, psychologists can disagree with me, but I would call you an internal processor. You’re still working out your thoughts internally, not _with_ other people. (Sometimes I process in my journal as well.) I’d say that external processors almost _need_ the interaction of someone helping to ask questions as well as being able to say something out loud.

    At least, that fits with my definitions for me and Steve!

  3. I’ve said it before… and I’ll say it again… you guys are just like us, except I’m like Steve and Ian is like you, Corrie.

  4. E and I are working on this too.. your post is quite timely and I’ll share it with him. Who ever told me that after 28 years I’d have to re-learn how to talk?

    And I do highly like your last recommendation. Lots gets talked about when the lights go out and we’re just lying in bed holding hands.

    I think I’m a more like Steve…

  5. Alright, so I’m a “Corrie”. I have many “Steves” in my life, and they do get frustrated with me for “not communicating.” And I sometimes get frustrated with them for making me “sit through” their processing. Back when I was younger and dumber I would lamely suggest that they get a journal to help sort things out. They would look at me like I was crazy. Ha!

  6. I laughed, Corrie, as I pictured the looks on both your faces during these conversations.

    It’s one of those things people don’t talk about when discussing relationships until after you’re in one. Thanks for sharing.

  7. How funny! I laughed too. I am an internal processor (in my head, journaling) and Albert is external. I can think of things for months before I talk about them. Albert will talk about something the minute it hits his brain. But that’s what I appreciate about him because he is always open with me!

  8. So many comments! Glad you all enjoyed this post.

    Angela — I thought you were more extroverted than introverted? I don’t remember. If you’re more extroverted, I think you’d be the one person I know so far who is an extroverted internal processor!

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