Have the rules of clear communication been changed?
December 2, 2019 5:40 AM   Subscribe

Gf and I seem to disagree about what constitutes good communication. I honestly didn't even know that this was even up for debate.

So... less than six months into a great, awesome new relationship, girlfriend drops a couple of bombs while she's with family for Thanksgiving, mainly that she's been struggling with so much that she' s close to a breaking point, the kind that would require a call to a help line.

This obviously came as a bit of a shock to me because she had never expressed any such thoughts directly, and, on the whole, she seemed happy.

When I expressed these thoughts to her (after listening to everything she said, expressing my sympathy, and very gently and carefully choosing my words), she said that she had been communicating these things, but that I simply hadn't been listening.

And here's where our opinions diverged. She agreed with me that we had never had a "talk" about how rough things were going for her (work, family, money issues, studies), but that she had "vented" her frustration many times, which I acknowledged. To her, having a talk and venting like this were the same, and the onus was on me to connect the dots.

And just today, she shared this on her Fb [3rd party Fb post link].

But isn't communication a two-way street? Isn't acknowledging receipt of said communication a required step? Does one-way venting = having a conversation nowadays?

I just want to do the right thing here. But I need to understand the rules first.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (38 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
There are no rules in relationships, only what both people agree they want to participate in. Consider getting away from what's right and wrong and focus on what's going to work for both of you. It sounds like your girlfriend is asking you to be more intuitive and sensitive to her more subtle messages. Maybe she wants you to ask more or deeper questions about her feelings. To me these are reasonable asks. At the same time, it is wise for you to also ask for what you want. If you'd like to ask her to speak up more directly about her feelings and needs, you can (gently, respectfully) ask for that.

Re the Facebook post: this isn't necessarily directed at you. But it's a worthwhile concept to think about. In our society women are expected to do the work of noticing and responding to feelings. It seems she wants you to do more of that work.
posted by latkes at 6:02 AM on December 2, 2019 [30 favorites]

There are no universal rules. The two of you get to negotiate how your relationship will work.

But it only works if you both buy in, and it sounds like she isn't buying in to the way things are going right now.

If you want to be with her, you need to communicate with her in a way that works for you and her. Recruiting strangers on the internet to disapprove of her isn't going to help. Talk to her.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:02 AM on December 2, 2019 [9 favorites]

Do please search Ask Metafilter for "Emotional Labor." You will find much that is helpful. Also search for "ask / guess culture," which seems to apply here.
posted by Mo Nickels at 6:03 AM on December 2, 2019 [19 favorites]

I think you're going about this the wrong way. This is not a time for playing rules lawyer. You're not wrong for not knowing how she felt and she's not wrong for not spelling it out for you. Ask her how she'd like you to check in with her on her feelings going forward and then LISTEN.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:04 AM on December 2, 2019 [89 favorites]

As for the Emotional Labor thing, it's a concept that many people find helpful, and many people find terribly unhelpful. Sometimes that correlates with gender and politics. Sometimes it doesn't — I know progressive women who find the idea of emotional labor insulting, and relatively conservative men who think it makes good sense.

But if your girlfriend is finding it helpful, then rather than asking "Is this the new set of rules we all must obey?" (it isn't; there is no such set of rules), maybe ask "What can I learn about her by understanding this? What is it about her, her needs, and her attitude towards love and cooperation that makes this speak to her?"
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:06 AM on December 2, 2019 [9 favorites]

If you rarely pick up on the venting and build a conversation in the moment based on her clear frustration, that will absolutely read as not being interested in having two-way communication.

If she says "what a fuck of a day!" and you don't take the conversation anywhere to explore her feelings, that's you refusing to do any emotional labour. The proper response to something like that is, "do you want to talk about it?" and also offering to provide comfort (tea? blanket?) and affection (pay attention, make her feel like she matters to you).

If you just let it go and wait for her to tell you more about it, that reads as really cold and standoffish.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:07 AM on December 2, 2019 [27 favorites]

To her, having a talk and venting like this were the same, and the onus was on me to connect the dots.

It all depends on the two of you and your relationship. But in my marriage, for sure this onus would be on each of us. It would go something like... after venting, one of us would say "hey, is this really under your skin?" And for us, about once a week (usually Sunday morning) we do check in with each other like "how are you feeling about the week?" We have our own long-developed language, so it might not be quite that obvious but we do check in about the deeper implications of rough times.

It's also about staying aware. Right now my spouse is under a LOT of pressure at work so I ask him about how he's doing with that every few days. He knows I have trouble when there's less light out, so he's checking in with me too.

That said, you two are still learning about each other. So take her to a cosy spot and ask her about what you just learned about her, and ask her how you can help/check in with her more. Because you love her and want her to get the support she needs.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:08 AM on December 2, 2019 [10 favorites]

The "rules" of communication such as they are, exist in a context. There isn't a single Rule of Communication that applies all the time to all people in the same way.

You've just discovered that the two of you have been operating under different assumptions about how communication works within the context of your specific new relationship. It doesn't sound like either of you have done something wrong or is a bad person. It does sound like you need to sit down and have a meta-conversation about how you each see communication and where the mismatch is, and whether you can find a way to communicate better that works for you both. Possibly not this second, if your girlfriend is in crisis, but when things are a bit calmer, that's the conversation you need to have. How can you both communicate in a way that's clear and satisfying and helpful for both of you and for your relationship? What communication habits and styles would make each of you feel loved and secure?

This probably will end up looking a lot more like guidelines or suggestions than rules; any long-term relationship is going to change and evolve in ways that a rigid set of rules you set out at some point is not going to work for the relationship forever.
posted by Stacey at 6:10 AM on December 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

Sometimes it takes emotional labor to draw someone out. She's asking you to do that work. Here are two scenarios:

The let things slide approach
Partner 1: My day sucked! I'm so sick of my job. Sometimes I think my boss is an axe murderer in his spare time.
Partner 2: What would you like to have for dinner?
The give your partner an opportunity to share more approach
Partner 1: My day sucked. I'm so sick of my job. Sometimes I think my boss is an axe murderer in his spare time.
Partner 2: I'm so sorry. Would you like to talk about it more? We could order some take out and just have a quiet night together.
The second approach takes more work -- that's emotional labor, and it involves being willing to deal with unpleasant conversations and even initiate them. It's easier to let things slide, but it's not always best for the long term health of a relationship. Your partner may feel that you haven't been willing to do this work; that you always expect her to do it. If you value the relationship, as you say you do, it's time to dig in, stop judging, and start helping out.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:28 AM on December 2, 2019 [35 favorites]

So she’s close to a breaking point and you’re criticizing her communication style? After she communicated with you that she was in crisis? My dude, you made an emotional crisis harder for her in order to make it clear that you are less to blame than she is. You added the stress of arguing with you to a “breaking point” situation. Setting aside the communication disagreement, why are you looking to criticize her at all? Why are you trying to make her wrong? This is a terrible thing to do to someone in crisis. You should apologize for criticizing her and, because you started this pointless argument, you should take back what you said about her communicating incorrectly. What’s important is that you are supporting her and being loving and accepting to her. Not whether she somehow screwed you by not being 100% open, literal, and accurate with her boyfriend of mere months at all times.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:39 AM on December 2, 2019 [100 favorites]

Does one-way venting = having a conversation nowadays?

The best communication might be for her to sit you down and say "Anonymous, we need to have a very important talk now, are you prepared to have a very important talk now?" and wait for confirmation that the two of you are having a very important talk now before having a very important talk, but if you think that absolves you from any responsibility for paying attention to what your partner is saying to you when she hasn't previously announced a very important talk, well, I don't think the communications problems are entirely on her side.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:41 AM on December 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

Your girlfriend’s mental health is at a point where she might need to call a helpline, presumably to keep from hurting herself? And you’re concerned about whether she “communicated properly”? Look, not to be harsh, but I was nearly your girlfriend earlier this year, and...

1) It is incredibly, incredibly hard to talk about mental health problems. Yes, even if your girlfriend is very emotionally open, doesn’t stigmatize other people’s mental health, talks about everything with you. I’m literally a therapist in training, my whole job is to help people open up about this and it took me a long time to be able to tell my partner I wanted to hurt myself. And I wasn’t even at a suicidal point, it was literally just, “I’m so stressed I want to bang my head on the wall and run into things” and that was still incredibly hard to talk about.

2) She got up the courage to tell you this and you made it about you. Why does it matter that she seems happy and hadn’t told you before? What good does it do her to say that? Of course she got defensive. So what if it wasn’t “clear communication”? You are damn lucky she was able to communicate this at all. She’s the lowest she’s ever been and you just told her “well, you didn’t do a good enough job telling me” and came to the Internet to validate that instead of looking for ways to help her.

Sorry, I know that’s blunt and not what you were asking, but I would seriously consider breaking up with someone over a response like that, so I thought you should know.

To answer your question, communication is a two way street, and if you find venting to be one sided, you aren’t doing your part. Every time she vents, that's an opportunity to ask her more about how she's feeling, how she's handling things. If the venting isn't a conversation, it sounds like you're not taking the opportunity to engage. She shouldn't have to spell everything out for you. I presume your smart enough to connect some dots and ask her questions on your own. Consider doing so.
posted by brook horse at 6:43 AM on December 2, 2019 [37 favorites]

Also she may be wrong about having communicated effectively. But people digging in and being defensive and saying inaccurate shit is what you get when you start picking at them when they’re vulnerable.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:43 AM on December 2, 2019 [10 favorites]

I just want to do the right thing here.

The person you love said she's overwhelmed to the point of calling a help line.

The person you love said she's overwhelmed to the point of calling a help line.

The person you love said she's overwhelmed to the point of calling a help line.

The right thing to do here is ask "How can I help"

I totally get that you feel like's coming from nowhere and you're confused and maybe a bit angry and/or frustrated about this bomb. Those feelings are totally understandable.

But if you want to help, you need to dive in and ask how can you help. Sure, part of that might a conversation about how she and she communicate, but for now you need to offer to shoulder the load and get in there and help. Arguing about who's right ain't helping.

Get off the internet and go ask the person you love how you can help them deal with all this.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:03 AM on December 2, 2019 [51 favorites]

One of the keys to empathy that many people neglect is connecting all the dots. You may have heard each of her communications/vents, but did you compile all those things together in your mind, and keep them compiled?

For example, I know that this week my partner has a deadline. That's a stressor. He is also scheduled for jury duty, which, if it happens, will remove a day from his workweek. He is a bit wrung out from the emotional effort that Thanksgiving weekend required, and now the next holiday season with all of its obligations has kicked in. So, now, if his mother calls and she's lost her Amazon password, he's going to be pretty annoyed and stressed, and solving the problem will take more time away from an already short workweek. When he tells me about his mother and the password, I need to compile that together with all of the other stressors in order to really understand what he's feeling this week. It's not a string of separate incidents, but a little mountain of snow that keeps getting more flakes on top.

It might help to make that understanding a part of your communication. When your partner communicates a problem, acknowledge it in light of everything else that's going on. She may not even have articulated it to herself yet, but your ability to do this will help her feel heard.
posted by xo at 7:05 AM on December 2, 2019 [26 favorites]

It's kind of unclear what you're asking. You seem to be looking for validation that you've done nothing wrong, or an adjudication of who's at fault here. (And maybe you haven't done anything wrong. Maybe your girlfriend really didn't communicate her needs in a way that you could've been reasonably expected to understand. But without knowing exactly what she has and hasn't said, it's impossible for us to tell you that one way or the other.)

I do suggest discarding the notion that there are "rules" here. Certainly, there are principles of good communication that one can follow. But don't think of them as arbitrary restrictions that are being imposed on you from outside. That's not going to help.

This, to me, seems like the key part of your post:

She agreed with me that we had never had a "talk" about how rough things were going for her (work, family, money issues, studies), but that she had "vented" her frustration many times, which I acknowledged. To her, having a talk and venting like this were the same, and the onus was on me to connect the dots.

So, by your own account, your girlfriend has communicated her emotional distress to you on many occasions. I don't understand how this differs from "having a talk", or why you're drawing a distinction between these two things.

If she has frequently and repeatedly shown you that she's upset, then yeah – you maybe should've gathered that she's having a rough time. What you call "venting" is communication. She was showing you her emotional state, because you're close to her, and she wanted you to know how she was feeling. If she's done this many times, but you still need her to sit you down and spell out "I'm having a difficult time right now" – what you call a "talk" – then this is probably why she feels like you haven't been listening to her.

Yes, the onus is on you to notice that "hey, my girlfriend seems upset a lot lately". This isn't even, like, an onus – that's just how human communication works.

The above-quoted passage also seems weirdly at odds with this part: "on the whole, she seemed happy". She frequently expresses discontent, but she also seems happy? I don't get it.

It sounds like your girlfriend is feeling a bit hurt, betrayed, and/or abandoned by you right now. (Put aside, for the moment, whether that's "fair" or not – your girlfriend feels how she feels, and people can't be reasoned out of their feelings.) If your goal is to soothe some of that hurt, and to salvage the relationship – then you need to apologize for letting her down, and start working hard on listening.

Because listening is work. Another person can put words in your ears, but understanding requires active effort on your part. (That's part of "emotional labor".)

Importantly, this is something you'll need to do habitually, over time. There will never be one discrete "talk", where she paints a complete, clear picture for you in a single infodump. It doesn't work that way. Just develop the habit of putting yourself in her shoes when she tells you about things in her life. Whether she's speaking directly about her feelings, or just telling you about her trip to the grocery store that morning. It's like this: "based on what I know of my girlfriend's personality, tastes, ambitions, anxieties, etc., and what's been going on in her life lately, I can sort of imagine how she must be feeling about the thing she's talking about".

This takes practice, and it isn't an exact science – and you won't find a clear, step-by-step procedure for doing it. It's more like learning to ride a bike, or to play an instrument: you can't just read a how-to guide, and then expect to execute it well on the first try. Read the manual, and then go practice until you develop a feel for the thing. Over and over again. People talk about "intuition" as if it's a gift that people are (or aren't) born with – but that's not true.

And, whenever you do feel that you've understood something about her emotional state, probably the most important thing you can do is to acknowledge it. Sometimes people just need to feel seen. By acknowledging a person's feelings, you are participating in their feelings – and it sounds like that's what your girlfriend wants from you.

Be happy about her happiness; be sad about her sadness. If she tells you that she had a really great time with her friends, then say "that's awesome; I'm so glad you had fun". Because your heart should sing a bit, just as if you'd had that fun yourself. (Even if she was doing something that you, personally, aren't into.) And if she tells you that she's unhappy or anxious about something, then tell her "I'm so sorry you're feeling that way; it sounds awful". Because you should hurt a bit, knowing that someone you care about is hurting.

Having one's feelings acknowledged in this way is cathartic. Just knowing that another person's heart is tied to your own in this way makes it a little easier to get through the tough times. It makes us feel less alone in the world. It's a simple thing, and unfortunately it's sometimes all we can do to help another person – but it can be worth a lot.

Basically, you should learn to maintain a sense of "what it's like to be my girlfriend" – continually updating it, based on what she tells (and shows) you. And then show her, in ways that feel meaningful and authentic to you, that you have some understanding of what it's like to be her. This is more or less the definition of emotional intimacy.

Communication in relationships is a big topic, and it's not something that can be explained in a single AskMe, and I'm certainly not the best person to explain it. This AskMe is the beginning of a journey for you, not the end. Please try not to think about it in terms like "rules" or "onus". Emotional communication is a skill – a very valuable one – and it can be learned. But it takes time, and you have to want to learn it.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 7:08 AM on December 2, 2019 [33 favorites]

I cosign pretty much everything that's been said in this thread so far, and here's an addition I hope you find helpful (and that I hope you don't find redundant to knowledge you already have - if so, apologies): there's a concept called "sitting in discomfort" that (in addition to emotional labor and Ask/Guess) can be a really useful tool - try to take a moment alone where you are not trying to avoid the negative feelings you are feeling (which, although you have not stated, I would guess include sadness that your girlfriend is unhappy, defensiveness that she feels you have contributed to that unhappiness, and worry about her mental and physical health). In particular it could be helpful to really sit in and not try to dismiss/repress/justify that defensive reaction that led you to arguing with her when she is already "close to a breaking point"; just try to understand it. I can't help but wonder if you sit with that instead of try to avoid it or move through it as quickly as possible, you might find it at least partly arose because there's a wee part of you that thinks she might be right that you could have done better.

If introspection isn't where you want to focus your energies right now, there are lots of online resources to learn about nonviolent communication, which could both help adjust how you approach conversations with your partner AND eventually bring you to a place of introspection and sitting in discomfort as you learn to be compassionate with yourself.

Good luck to you both; hope you can be kind to yourself and your partner as you figure this all out.
posted by solotoro at 7:21 AM on December 2, 2019 [11 favorites]

Deb Tannen is a linguist who writes about communication across gender lines, and the title of this article jumped out at me: Lost in Translation: The Different Ways Men and Women Talk About Troubles. There are more listed on her website, plus scholarly articles and books.

Now for my non-expert opinion:
Nthing those who say there are no universal rules. You and your GF have communication styles shaped by your families of origin, cultures, gender roles, previous relationships, etc. Neither is necessarily right or wrong, but any two people always have more to learn about how to communicate together. Curiosity is better than rules, here. You are not a minion who needs a user manual, you are co-explorers.

For now, focus on supporting your partner. She may not always be able to tell you exactly what she needs for support (I say this because I, a woman, cannot always do this), so consider what she does for you and others - how does she respond when you vent about work, how does she help friends and family members when they are in crisis.

There's fixing the larger issue (might mean help finding a therapist, making a doc appointment, going with her to the doc appointment, calling the help line yourself, help finding a new job); and showing her she's loved and supported - depending on her personality that might look like occasional flowers, a text during the work day to let her know you're thinking about her, hiring a maid or a meal service, doing the dishes, extra hugs, holding her hand. Those are random ideas and any one of them may or may not work in your situation, but hopefully one or two will click with what you know about her and how she likes/needs to be supported.

Practice self-care and seek support for yourself - maybe therapy, maybe talking to a trusted friend or clergy member. It's hard when someone close to you is in crisis.

Post-crisis, you can have fun with meta-conversations about your respective communication styles, if that suits you both. This is probably not the best time for that.
posted by bunderful at 7:25 AM on December 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Sorry for rambling, but one more thing:

You don't have to wait for her to tell you about her needs/feelings/etc. Ask.

You can do this even in mundane, what-I-did-today conversations. If you learn that she signed up to attend a work-related event, you can say "oh wow, are you looking forward to that?", or "are you nervous?", or "I bet you wish you could skip that one".

When she does bring feelings to you, ask questions, and generally encourage her to keep talking. (This demonstrates that you're listening and understanding, and communicates that it's okay for her to talk to you about this stuff – that she isn't being a nuisance.) Say things like: "has that been bothering you a lot lately?", or "do you feel like there's a light at the end of the tunnel?", or "I imagine that's really frustrating". Explore her feelings together with her. You don't have to solve her problems – much of the time, you can't anyway. Just give her a safe space to work things out, feel validated, and get things off her chest.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 7:25 AM on December 2, 2019 [11 favorites]

If she told you about, say, four separate difficulties she was having, then yes, someone who cares about her should naturally connect the dots to recognize that she has a lot going on, and initiate a conversation about it if it doesn't come about naturally.
posted by metasarah at 7:50 AM on December 2, 2019 [10 favorites]

The question, "have the rules of clear communication changed?" is vaguely manipulative. It implies that you were once the key holder to "clear communication" but that due to something your girlfriend has "changed" what you insist is "clear communication"; that this something she did to "change the clear rules" breaks a standard that you set. This question implies that you are "right" and anyone who doesn't abide by your "rules" is wrong.
If I had to guess, you're a younger white guy who hasn't had a lot of dating experience.
There's no way I'd date someone like this, especially if I were going through times of crisis. Agreeing with the above, framing up your conversations like this isn't only not helpful to her right now, but it's actively damaging her. She'll break up with you once she realizes that she keeps hitting herself in the face with your so-called rules and need for her to be "happy" at the expense of being her authentic self. This sounds harsh; it's true.
posted by erattacorrige at 7:55 AM on December 2, 2019 [25 favorites]

Also, it's important to note that people who are stressed out often don't do a good job of communicating, because they're stressed out.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:05 AM on December 2, 2019 [15 favorites]

Does one-way venting = having a conversation nowadays?

You have now found out that the answer to this question from your GF is "yes", and if that annoys you now it'll be 10X worse when you are married.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:06 AM on December 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

But isn't communication a two-way street? Isn't acknowledging receipt of said communication a required step? Does one-way venting = having a conversation nowadays?

Communication can be a two-way street, yes, but... you don't mention anything about how you've been responding to her venting, except to call it one-way, which implies that she spills her guts to you about her frustrations with work, with family, with her studies, and with money issues, and you respond by doing nothing. Which means you're failing HUGELY at your second question here, acknowledging receipt of said communication. Is that in fact the case? If so, WHEW, no wonder she's irked with you. She's been telling you for quite some time that she's under a ton of stress and by your recounting of the situation, you've done nothing in response to her telling you that she's under a ton of stress.

The two of you need to have a very long talk about your communication styles and whether they mesh. And to be blunt, if your mode of communication is to assume that any statement from your girlfriend about her stresses that doesn't come with a clearly stated "and here's what I need from you" is just babbling that you can ignore... then your mode of communication needs some serious work. Other people aren't machines that spit out error messages that tell you what you need to do next. You do actually need to pay attention to what someone you care about is saying about their life, so that you can demonstrate how much you care as well.
posted by palomar at 8:10 AM on December 2, 2019 [18 favorites]

Not all communication = "having a conversation." It sounds like she has been communicating to you. She's been doing it in a way that doesn't call for you to say a whole lot back but instead to just listen actively and be emotionally available. That's communication. When one person talks and the other listens, that is still communication. When no one talks but one person breaks down in tears and the other gives them a hug, that's still communication. It seems that she's been communicating with you quite frequently. You viewed each one of those communications in a vacuum instead of putting them together to receive the complete message.

It's frequently hard for people (especially people in a crisis) to synthesize their experiences and state frankly what their needs are. If you wait for your loved ones to sit down with you soberly and say, "Anonymous, I am experiencing a great deal of distress, and I need you to X, and Y and Z for me." you're going to miss a lot of opportunities to provide emotional support to the people in your life.
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:10 AM on December 2, 2019 [16 favorites]

It's hard to say based on this limited information where the misunderstanding occurred without having heard the actual words. People vent about minor stuff sometimes but your account makes me wonder whether you two have a habit of intimate sharing at all. Do you talk about your dreams, goals, fears, do you root for each other and encourage each other? Because if you do, then you will become attuned to each other over time.

Right now, I'd just sit down with your GF and a cup of tea and say hey, I'd like to know what's up, wanna talk? And then listen, and do not change the subject unless she does.

You guys had a miscommunication, it happens. This is how you learn about each other. Nobody needs to be at fault, the main thing is you guys are on each other's teams.
posted by M. at 8:38 AM on December 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

She agreed with me that we had never had a "talk" about how rough things were going for her (work, family, money issues, studies), but that she had "vented" her frustration many times, which I acknowledged. To her, having a talk and venting like this were the same, and the onus was on me to connect the dots.

Now you've learned an important thing about your girlfriend that you may not have realized before: she is an indirect communicator. This means that yes, this is how you need to work moving forward, doing more dot-connecting. Without more information we don't know if she was really keeping her emotions hidden or if you're a little clueless and she was being obvious, but now you know how SHE feels about those things which is really the most important part. She's stressed out and near a breaking point and one of those stressors may be that you're not picking up on her social and emotional cues.

And I get it, from your perspective, you get surprised by how bad she says things are when she's seemed okay and you'd maybe like some sympathy for the fact that this surprise and her pain are also, in some ways, hard for you. And that's an okay thing to want, but you need to get it from someone who is not your girlfriend, who is struggling. Talk to a friend, or someone from MeFi or a therapist about that part and don't try to have that "But I didn't KNOW" convo with her right now.

I can be a slightly indirect communicator about my feelings, I was brought up to believe that everyone else's well-being was more important than my own,and I can, like your girlfriend, sort of mash my feelings down until they are kind of too much. And my boyfriend, who is a lovely person and I adore, is not great at social/emotional cues and so we have the same dynamic that you describe. I sometimes have to suck it up and tell him exactly what I want. This can be hard for me. And his job is to then not quibble with me and just to Do The Thing that needs doing. It works for us because the relationship works for us in many more ways than it doesn't. But this adjustment, for both of us, was a struggle to get to. I wish you luck navigating this.
posted by jessamyn at 9:08 AM on December 2, 2019 [19 favorites]

You got sandbagged here, which never feels good. I feel for you.

Still, an important rule for family and relationship communication is this: Never take anything said during the holidays at face value. People are stressed out of their gourds. Tiny things become enormous things, big things become the end of the world, and huge clouds of floating angst settle down to make brand new things out of nowhere.

Given that everyone is in Holiday Stress Mode, I wouldn't get too caught up in what happened or didn't happen just this moment. You know that she's looking for support right now, even if the way she expressed it came off as an attack. She doesn't get a free pass to attack you, but cutting each other some extra slack this time of year will help. There will be time to sort it out in January.

In the long run, for decades my parents have met at a set time on Sunday morning to talk about their relationship. They each take turns saying what's on their mind, and then they discuss it. This a) lets them be emotionally prepared to talk and b) makes sure the talks actually happen. It sounds like having a specific time set aside might help you two too.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:54 AM on December 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

From the OP:
OP here. I wanted to say thank you to everyone who posted a response; I am taking everything on board, and acknowledge that I still have lots to learn. Thank you to everybody for pointing me in the right direction.

Just to clarify a couple of points that may be relevant, based on some comments:
- The framing of the question came about possibly due to the big age gap between us: I'm Gen X, she's Millenial. Though this fact rarely comes up between us, at times like this I wonder if there's something I'm missing out on, or something that I could learn from peers of her generation. In other words, the question was genuine.
- I maybe should've clarified that when we're together, face to face, she seems happy. We go out to eat, we play games, we have sexy times. She has rarely "vented" in person, only doing so via text, at random times throughout the day. Each time she has done so, I have responded with a variant of what some have suggested: "I am sorry to hear that. How can I help?" The response to this is usually an emoji or a gif with hearts/hugging/kissing or a "Thanks babe."

Regardless, I agree 100% that the correct response to her telling me (again via text) that she was close to breaking point was... not what I did. Thank you everyone for making this very clear.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 9:55 AM on December 2, 2019 [11 favorites]

Perhaps you should shelve, for the moment, the inquiry into how the rules of communication have transformed in this day and age - definitely shelve it when interacting with her, at least, and I would recommend you prioritize other things now even in your own independent research.

One of the things that happens to even the best of us when a loved one accuses us of falling short in some way is that we think, "Wow! Did I really mess up? How did I mess up? I must learn what I've been doing wrong so that I can fix it!" This comes from a good place. We don't want to mess up again. We want to fix the error in our thinking that led to the error in behavior. In many cases this would be the right thing to do.

But in many other cases, it also comes across as ... defensive? Self-centered? Certainly unhelpful. In the throes of her crisis, the last thing that will help her - or help the relationship - is you embarking on a journey of reflection, interrogation and self-improvement. When she is in crisis, a much more helpful attitude from you is if you

1. accept the accusation calmly as being her current truth,

2. set it aside, without argument and better yet, with validation: "Yes, I can see why you would feel that way," and

3. become curious about and empathic towards the emotions and the needs she has in the moment, so that she can experience the relief of unburdening herself: e.g. "So you've been feeling unheard? Neglected?" (give her words for the strong feelings; even if your guess is wrong, this gets her telling you what's going on if only to contradict you) "You look lost and alone as you say that... Your shoulders are hunched like you want to protect yourself... I'm so sorry." (A reflection of her physical posture, a sign that you SEE her, a show of kindness from you - it allows her to soften and cry.)

This is easier to understand if we think about a parent-child relationship. If my child screams at me that I was the worst mom ever, I would not start asking her, "Really? Am I the worst mom in the world? I wonder what I did wrong. Let me ask my kid for detailed feedback, and check in with my therapist how I should have done differently." That is NOT REASSURING and it is NOT KIND! Instead, I will say something like, "I did something that made you very angry. So angry that you want to rage and scream at me. What's going on?" --> validate, stay calm, accept whatever the child throws at me, become curious about the child's experience, help them express their crisis feelings.

When the other person is in crisis, they need us to become their calm and steadfast center in the midst of their raging storm. This applies whether or not the person in crisis is a child or an adult.

(Needless to say, patronizing the person in crisis is never going to work, be they a child or an adult. It's always disrespectful. What I'm advocating should not be understood as, "Treat your gf like your child." I'm saying, there are certain rules for being with someone who is in crisis, and we as a society tend to use these best practices most often with children, so I used that as an example of how it works.)

When the crisis has passed, when both of you are on an even keel, then the accounting and deeper questioning of the specific accusations can take place. My kid will probably have to apologize for saying I'm the worst mom ever. Your gf might admit she was expecting you to read her mind a bit, and you might ask her at that point how she envisions these communications between you to look like. LATER. Not now.
posted by MiraK at 10:34 AM on December 2, 2019 [9 favorites]

Y’all are very new to each other. Try to see this as the communication. She’s allowing you more intimacy and letting you know what’s up. She maybe didn’t feel like having it intrude on enjoyable times. Now you know a little more about her and can be closer.

Connecting the dots is part of learning about any new person. You get surprised and you adjust. But surprise is part of getting to know someone new.

My guess is that the issue isn’t generational but instead that you maybe just left a long relationship and are expecting, subconsciously, to already know everything about her. But that takes time and you need to be patient, and yes, maybe more proactive about it than you have been so far.

But on the other hand, 6 months is very much an appropriate time for serious emotional conversations to start in earnest. It’s okay that she had to feel things out a bit before going there. It’s okay that you’re confused and don’t quite “get” what’s going on with her. It’s okay! On both your parts.

I’d get her flowers and tell her you got scared and reacted badly. Tell her how much you care about her. You want her to know that you’re here for her, and you hope to continue earning her trust. Be affectionate and sweet with her, and don’t make it a logical thing, just reassure her on an emotional level and connect with her.

Good luck, this can’t have been easy for you, and I hope that it continues to improve for both of you.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:39 AM on December 2, 2019 [7 favorites]

It's your job to synthesize the things your partner shares with you, whether verbal or nonverbal. If you're in regular communication, she should not have to sit you down to tell you "I am stressed". I mean, she can do that and that's great, but she shouldn't HAVE to, if you're paying attention.

When she vents to you, do you circle back to the topic at a later day/time? Do you fold the new information into your behaviour going forward (e.g. if you've historically split the cost of date nights and she's recently told you she's stressed about money, do you open a discussion about that, or just expect status quo on your next date?).
posted by yawper at 10:57 AM on December 2, 2019

Honestly from your update, I don't know that you did anything wrong? I mean, maybe you should have asked her in person about her venting? Would she have been amenable to that? Also vague posting on Facebook stuff that is a criticism of you is NOT a good way to communicate with anyone, which is what makes me question her communication skills as well.
posted by purple_bird at 11:35 AM on December 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

Your update makes me feel the need to add:

As a heterosexual Gen X woman, yes. Things are different now than they used to be, and the expectations are higher for emotional labor work. I dated your peers. I remember what it was like, where if something was Important you had to have The Talk about it, and the sign of a classy guy was that he would have all the right responses to The Talk and say the right things and rub your shoulders before going out and living his life that wouldn’t have to shift or change very much overall in response to it.

Things are different now. That low bar is too low - and while the millenials may have started calling out its bullshit, my age cohort - women who are your peers- are largely aware of that too.

You can’t get by without shouldering half of the work that women have historically done, which includes paying attention to subtle cues (which include venting texts) and shaping your world to make it more comfortable for your partner. You asked how you could help, which about ten to fifteen years ago, would make you a stand up guy. That used to be enough. Now we recognize that asking someone how you can help them puts more work on their shoulders as they try to figure out what they can appropriately ask you for. Now the standard is making offers, which they can correct if they want to. “That sounds rough. Let me take you out to dinner and run you a hot bath and make no demands of you this evening.” “I’m so sorry. Let me cover more of the bills for a while, so you don’t feel as much financial stress.” “Hey, would you like a tutor? I’ll make all the arrangements so all you’d have to do is figure out when is okay for them to come to your house”

You do the work of figuring out how to help make their life easier without them having to ask. Do you see the difference?
posted by corb at 1:42 PM on December 2, 2019 [49 favorites]

but that she had "vented" her frustration many times, which I acknowledged. To her, having a talk and venting like this were the same, and the onus was on me to connect the dots.

The difference between "venting" and having a conversation is that when it's a conversation, you respond, and when it's venting, you just stand there until she's finished.

personally I do not favor the language of "venting" and "ranting" as the pictures they paint--of a big bulging bag of wind with a hole punched in it to let some air screech out, or a streetcorner preacher hollering at total strangers, respectively--are not flattering or accurate. It's all well and good to use such a pejorative if the person is actually yelling at you. Otherwise, they're just talking about unpleasant subjects. It's only somehow not "a talk" if you don't answer.
posted by queenofbithynia at 1:54 PM on December 2, 2019 [9 favorites]

not sure if you are asking for advice, but I will give you some anyway:

if your gf texts you some unhappy comment during the day, acknowledge it at the time ("ugh that sucks"), AND LATER ASK HER ABOUT IT - not just what happened factually, but how she's doing vis a vis the thing.

Like "hey, are you feeling ok with how the presentation went?" or "hey, what's going on with the money situation you mentioned, are you really worried?" or "so did the doctor put your mind at ease?" or whatever it was she was texting you about.

If that doesn't sound like how you usually talk, well, my experience is that it is incredibly rare for men to ask women anything about their own experience and feeling. And when a man does do that, he stands out in the very best way.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:07 PM on December 2, 2019 [16 favorites]

The thing I am not clear on is if you ask your girlfriend follow up questions in person about the stresses and frustrations she texts you about when you're apart? It's strange to me that it was hard to connect the dots given she was telling you when she was stressed. That and the superficial way you describe the relationship--you go out to eat, you play games, you have sex--makes me wonder how much you have gotten to know her specifically. What sort of questions have you asked her about herself?
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 5:30 PM on December 2, 2019 [9 favorites]

This obviously came as a bit of a shock to me because she had never expressed any such thoughts directly, and, on the whole, she seemed happy.

So take this about 20 years down the line and you end up with a story where the woman is divorcing her husband and he is totally blindsided after she's been trying for years to get through to him she's unhappy.

Maybe your gf isn't the greatest communicator and is doing so indirectly because that's how women have been trained. Don't speak up, don't speak your needs, be indirect and hope they (i.e. male partners) get the message. Patriarchy and misogyny suck, amirite?

So your question is about "talk" vs. "vent" and communication rules and you're asking the wrong questions. No we're not going to tell you what the rules are (there aren't really any) nor are we going to secretly agree with you that your gf's communication style is unreasonable (that seems to be your subtext here). It sounds like you're expecting her to sit you down and she lays it out cleanly and clearly "This is what I'm struggling with, this is how I need you to help" and if that's what you need/want, that's a LOT to ask of her. Please don't be all "but I didn't know!" and "you're communicating with me the wrong way if you want help from me." -- I can't tell you how much I (a woman, in between gen x and millennial = xennial) can't stand this, having a meta conversation about how I have to communicate in a certain way with a male partner in order to be seen and heard. (And if your communication styles don't work, maybe it means you're not compatible.) She's already struggling; she doesn't need you to make her work to package it in a way that works for you. Hence her FB post.

Her saying that you need to connect the dots means pick up on her signals. She said/texted this the other day, and she said/texted this today, those things might be linked or mean this. So that's what you say (not text) to her - I noticed x and y, is everything ok? Can I get you this, help you with that? And make it an ongoing conversation; don't just leave it that that and check off the "had the feelings convo" box for today. You don't have to be 100% correct about what's going with her - that's what having the conversation is for. Even having the conversation itself is meaningful. No you don't need to be a mind reader, nor do you need to keep track of all her words in a spreadsheet and start parsing and guessing all the meanings. Nor do you pester her for updates, but check in. Just have some intuition, pay attention and treat her as a human (who has struggles) - I know those are such unhelpful words, but that's all I got. It's only been 6 months so yeah, sure, you're still learning about her and are going to fuck up.
posted by foxjacket at 11:53 AM on December 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

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