The actual essay:
Do you think misunderstandings in relationships are inevitable?
How do you handle them?
Here's what happens in a misunderstanding:
- I say literally X,
- which in my mind carries the message Y,
- but in your mind you understand Z.
- Then there is some confusion and
controversy because Z and Y don't match up.
I think misunderstandings are inevitable.
This is my theory of
misunderstandings and what to do about them.
Misunderstandings are inevitable because language is
many-layered, and that means that what you literally say and what you
intend to communicate are usually, normally, perhaps even always,
quite different. This a basic result of linguistic science, so please
go read about Linguistic Pragmatics somewhere if you don't believe me;
try Yahoo, or search Google for Conversational Implicature.
- Any two people cannot have the same history and expectations
in any given situation, we are always different, and it's more a
miracle that we understand each other as successfully as we do, than
it is a tragedy that it doesn't always work out that way.
- It can can be very emotionally painful for one side or both sides
when a misunderstanding occurs, especially if an important
expectation is violated by the unintended message Z.
- The Buddha said that Desire is the Root of all Pain, and your
expectations can really torture you in the case of a misunderstanding.
So prepare to lighten up and be curious and explore, don't get all
upset just yet, it's probably a misunderstanding.
- Fourth, if it's a misunderstanding then it's not anyone's fault,
but both sides have participated, and both sides can learn something,
and if either side continues to blame the other for the
misunderstanding then that is No Fair. It's not their fault
that you don't understand what they meant, they expected that you
would or otherwise they would have said it another way. And it's not
your fault either, you didn't expect them to communicate that message
in that way.
Here's what I think is a fair way to handle it.
- First, we talk and talk
- until I figure out that you understood Z
- until you figure out that I meant Y.
- Then we both learn something:
- I try to assimilate a
lesson from this experience, namely:
- that when I say something like X it is likely to lead to you
receiving a message like Z not a message like Y, and so..
- maybe I could consider another way of packaging my message so it
actually gets there.
- You try to assimilate a lesson from that:
that when I say something like X I mean something like Y
- maybe you could consider another way of understanding my
Apply the Golden Rule. Does it feel the same when you're on the other
side? I think so.
But if you'd rather focus on the part where your friend learns what
you were thinking and you get to teach your friend a lesson, and you
want to skip the part where you learn what they were thinking and
trying to say and where you assimilate a lesson, too, yourself, about
how to understand them, then, nothing personal, but that seems out of
balance. To me it seems selfish, domineering, and disrespectful, and
injures the relationship. You have to root out the mistrust by
honestly and respectfully engaging with your friend's real intention,
by letting that really count, because that is what they really meant.
If you insist on staying on your own side, you're just burning down
the bridge of connection between you and your friend.
Think about it. Just a thought.
A personal bit I commented out before
I thought of editing the misunderstandings thing a little bit,
emphasizing the points where the blaming other decides not to listen
to the misunderstandable speaker's intention, and making sure they get
it that it's not just their job to teach the other what their insulted
interpretation was but also to learn what the uninsulting meaning that
was really trying to be communicated was, and taking seriously that
the true intention was the true intention. Partners often take their
own position way too universalistically, like the other person doesn't
really have a position. and that is super extremely wrong and hostile,
just as much as the inferred and as it turns out false insult seemed
to be hostile. so the responsibility really has to be shared equally,
if it's a misunderstanding, and the insulted party has to step up just
as much as the other. often those who take offense are not willing to
step up and understand the true intention, and that is their character
flaw, which ruins relationships and intimacy even more than the
insulter has done.
I guess that's an implicit message in the essay, do you think?
... That's when what is in actual fact a sincere misunderstanding
(where the offensive communication X had an intended meaning Y which
was inoffensive) becomes grounds indeed to break up the relationship,
precisely because the furious party is unwilling to consider the
'offender''s actual intention as having any validity, nor is even
willing to hear what that intention was then or thereafter. The very
preference of the furious one of remaining attached to their fury over
respecting the other party to the relationship actually terminates the
relationship, because in that situation the 'offender' no longer
exists in the relationship, the furious one is alone with their fury,
their interpretation, their insistence that that's the only thing that
really happened when they were offended, their continuing insistence
that the other *was* offensive. The other person essentially isn't
even there. Exactly. It's like being ten ;-) Ultimately the furious
one has to grow up, or the other one has to leave the relationship.
That's why the misunderstanding model is so important, if either one
is unwilling to acknowledge the other's interpretation Y or Z, then
the relationship is broken, by the unwilling one's selfishness.
Commitment is a funny thing. Suppose you find you like a certain
restaurant, and you go back, and get that wonderful dish again. Then
over time you find yourself a regular, always ordering the same thing.
It's as if you were committed. In that way I have found myself
committed to siddha yoga, to table tennis, to plumbing, to trader
joe's frozen dinners, to lunches with Dad every other weekend, to
calling my mom and my sister and brother in law once in a while. It's
not scary or constraining when it happens that way.
But when one makes a big commitment to be with a partner, and s/he
says yes, both of you are reaching for something you want in
principle, and want to try to get with each other, but perhaps neither
of us had the regular positive history of working with the other to
rely on. So it may be more of a shot in the dark, ultimately, and
although not really a mistake, certainly it can be a painful learning
experience, when you found yourselves creating negative dynamics
together that you can't figure out how to avoid. To me the key lesson
is that the misunderstanding-resolution process must be respected on
both sides, and anyone that isn't willing to step up to the whole
thing after at most a few days of a cool off period, is an unworkable
unsuitable partner that needs to go imperiously dominate a different
partner and then a succession of them, rather than remain with me. My
contribution to such a problem has been that I wasn't willing to say
that, to demand it, and to call it her problem if she wasn't willing
to do it, and to leave her if she insisted on not doing it. Instead I
was overtolerant of her blaming, overaccepting of everything always
being my fault, overunderstanding of all her inner and outer stressors
as counting vastly more than the misery that I felt when accepting the
criticism and contempt and negativity that she would express toward
me. In short, I was a wuss.
So, it won't happen again. I've got this page on the web, a line in
the sand. I make sure to discuss it in any significant relationship,
for example, and although I didn't in the first failing case get the
actual clear head nod that yes you too agree that even in the heat of
it I have another position that needs to be heard and acknowledged
just as you do, both equally, still I have at least made it clear that
that's what I require from a partner, and if push comes to shove later
then you'll know where I stand and either you'll step up as you can
expect and require me to do, or we won't really be in a relationship
at all and we can both move on. So that gives me a sense that I don't
have to be a bulldozee and it's calming to recognize that. Though
there's probably a lot more to it, levels of lessons to learn.
Perhaps it's activating different issues for others than I see. Do
you agree with me? Are there more lessons here?