How do you illustrate the problems without relying on statistics?
September 15, 2006 8:40 AM   Subscribe

How do I approach my quantitative-research-phobic boyfriend about diagnosing and resolving some communication problems in our long distance relationship?

In the nearly 10 months of our entirely long distance relationship, it has become increasingly apparent that my boyfriend has little faith in and/or outright hostility towards such studies as John Gottman's on marriages that work or don't. While I tend to take these things with a grain of salt and allow that while not all situations are identical (he has only a 91% success rate, after all; he's not God, despite the misleading surname...), there are still valid points to be taken, the boy will launch on a rant about how each situation is unique etc. etc. and no one accounts for so on and so on.

Similarly he has no faith in therapists (and I concede a point here, because there's no telling who's a shyster and who's not).

What I'm looking for is some source of guidance in analysing communication pitfalls that don't place a lot of faith in statistics... or at least aren't so overt about it as Gottman. Ideally I would love to recommend that we both read one of his books, but I forsee a lot of distrust in numbers that seem arbitrary and subjective to my paranoid paramour. (Oh ho ho..... sorry.)

Or... if nothing else, some responses on what you personally have found to be problematic, with regards to communication, in your own relationships and how you resolved it would be appreciated... oddly enough he would likely rather take advice from random internet bystanders than from some hoity-toity self-styled expert.
posted by dorothy humbird to Human Relations (34 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Dorothy, no offense, but ... relationships are for *fun* unless you're very much heading towards being married. And at that point, both of your heads are

My advice: Back off. Give it time. Have fun. Enjoy talking to one another. Work on any communication issues you perceive in the background instead of pushing them to the forefront and poking and prodding your probability-phobic paramour's pathological parrying of your problematic predication.

I watched V for Vendetta again last night. Verily! ... I'm so, so sorry.
posted by SpecialK at 8:51 AM on September 15, 2006

(damn, got so involved in the alliteration that I forgot to finish my thought.)

... Both of your heads are so far up in the clouds that it doesn't matter.
posted by SpecialK at 8:51 AM on September 15, 2006

It sounds like trying to communicate with him about research about communicating about relationships. What are the actual communication problems? Your question is perhaps too theoretical.
posted by voidcontext at 8:53 AM on September 15, 2006

is this a joke? who thinks about relationships in this way? I'm not sure I understand the question.
posted by sweetkid at 8:57 AM on September 15, 2006

void, to clarify: I know we have some communication problems, but I want help in identifying what they are and how to deal with them.

I'm looking for books that deal with this topic or personal advice. The one I personally would be most inclined to read (Gottman) is one that I see him having strong objections to, so I want alternatives.

Does that clear things up?

Also: we talk about marriage a lot. And I think it's worthwhile, especially in a long-distance relationship, to spend time making sure your [verbal] communication doesn't set you both to gnashing teeth, since it's the only way you have to relate for most of the time.
posted by dorothy humbird at 9:05 AM on September 15, 2006

I had a relationship with someone who, every time we had a communication issue, would reel off a laundry list of empirical findings about couple interaction and whatnot.

It. Drove. Me. Mad.

Stop citing the literature. Suggest some of the exercises or what have you for improving communication, but don't substitute them for actually listening and empathizing.
posted by logicpunk at 9:26 AM on September 15, 2006

I would first try just getting him to come to grips the idea that your relationship isn't perfect and may need some extra work on both your parts to be fully functional. Most guys don't really want to "work" on relationships, it's way to touchy-feely and generally makes them very uncomfortable. Broaching this in a calm and rational way will help alleviate this discomfort (to some degree), if you have some baggage in the area and can't discuss it without getting upset, then you probably need to work on that too, somebody needs to be a leader here and you've got to lead by example. Avoid blame, don't focus on personal habits, focus on communal goals (it's not what you need to do, it's what we need to do).
posted by doctor_negative at 9:33 AM on September 15, 2006

Relationships aren't math. They're about the feeling of two emotional beings. Give up trying to give him numbers and talk about what is really bothering each of you. Someone else's numbers are completely foreign to the relationship that you two are having. Don't bring any one else's theories into it.

I'll just chime in unasked with my personal experience with a number of long distance relationships: Long distance relationships are not real. They're illusion. If you take them too seriously, you'll end up hurting yourself seriously and in a way that's very hard to heal. If it's entirely long distance (You've never spent time in the same room, privately), then you are fool for taking about marriage. Get together in the same location for a few months before you start taking like adults. If you can't be in the same place, you shouldn't get married.
posted by Ookseer at 9:49 AM on September 15, 2006 [2 favorites]

As for communication, and long distance, these are mostly tips about fighting but:

I have found that really tough conversations are better done in person. But this may just have to do with the way my boyfriend and I interact - we're way better in person than on the phone. But the ability to see each other, touch each other, walk away for a few moments, etc. is very helpful to avoiding blowouts.

I try hard to not let things get too serious when we're fighting - laughter can really difuse the situation.

Also, I try to give up my natural stubborness for the sake of avoiding an escalation in a fight.

We also have a series of endearments we always say in the same order, and in a gentle tone, and it serves to calm down the other person when they're getting hysterical or otherwise silly. This just developed naturally in our relationship, and would seem ridiculous if forced, but the point is that we found a verbal way to PAUSE in our arguments (or stress, or whatever), and take the other person out of the situation. Works like a charm.

YMMV, obviously, but these are things I've noticed through trial and error that have worked when my current relationship is long distance.
posted by Amizu at 9:57 AM on September 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

Ookseer is right. Long distance is not real, you are kidding yourself(-ves). Face-to-face is entirely different. Others are right: communication is not about meta-talk (talking about communicating), it's just doing it. Your boyfriend is right: if you can't relate to him directly, without the intermediation of some book or 'expert', he is going to wonder whether you actually love him, as do some of us. My advice is, internalise and act upon all the advice you think is useful, but take him and respond to him at face value. To have your utterances and actions second-guessed in accordance with some or other theory of human behaviour is completely infuriating.
posted by londongeezer at 10:02 AM on September 15, 2006

I have a simular issue. I love Gottman because while I tend to shy away from relationship advice, I trust his research methods and research based conclusions. My girlfriend gets irritated by always bringing studies and science into our conflicts and while she wanted to be open to Gottman, I think she found my focus on him irritating to the degree that she didn't really stay open about him.

Anyway, I actually bought a DVD of Gottman lecturing. I got it from his website for like 30 bucks or something, and it was a great buy. My GF was willing to sit through the 90 minute video and I think Gottman is so dorky and down-to-earth that she responded well to him. A video is easier than a book I think.
posted by serazin at 10:21 AM on September 15, 2006

It seems some things weren't clear about my original post that I need to clear up.

1) I have never quoted statistics to him, or even quoted someone else's relationship advice. Generally I am the one heading up conflict resolution in our particular arguments, but I stick to figuring out what went wrong between both of us, without reference to anything else. I'm not sure how I came off as some sort of statistics encyclopedia, spouting off relationship advice... but that's not the case.

2) I mean "entirely long distance" in the sense that our permanent residences are now 5-6 hours apart. We visit each other on average once or twice a month for 3-6 days, and back in the beginning of this relationship spent almost a month seeing each other every day. (But that was out of the ordinary, because I was home on Christmas break, and then he was staying with me while his break was still in effect.) So, anyway--relating in person isn't the problem, it's maintaining communication while we can't see each other for weeks at a time. Additionally (whether this matters or not), I've spent time with his parents and he with mine -- we recently took an outdoor vacation trip with my family, and things were lovely.

So, to sum and redirect: I'm not looking for things to quote to him. I'm looking for resources you may have found helpful that we both can use, separately but simulatneously, if that makes any sense. Or experience. Experience is even better.
posted by dorothy humbird at 10:21 AM on September 15, 2006

Do you mind if I ask you how old you are? ("Christmas break" implies you're quite young).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:32 AM on September 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

Yes, you're right. 21 for me, 23 for him.
posted by dorothy humbird at 10:35 AM on September 15, 2006

It would really help us, then, to have some examples of communication problems you two are having. Long-distance relationships are touchy, especially when you're in college... and especially if he's already graduated and you haven't.

Without examples, all we're really going to be able to do is *guess* at what the problem actually is, and reccomend things based on that.
posted by SpecialK at 11:00 AM on September 15, 2006

communication is primarily about listening, not talking (or statistics)

it sounds like you are the one who is having problems listening
posted by unSane at 11:15 AM on September 15, 2006

If you really want to delve into Quantitative Statistics, you might consider finding an old copy of "Ethel the Aardvard Goes Quantity Surveying" for him. It might at least open the door.
posted by SlyBevel at 11:55 AM on September 15, 2006

Aardvark. Damn.
posted by SlyBevel at 11:55 AM on September 15, 2006

So, one of the problems we run into frequently seems to be that he interprets criticism or blame coming from me, or interprets me as arguing when I am only trying to offer a different viewpoint, explain my thoughts, or bring up something that I see as a barrier or an irritant and should probably be discussed.

I've surmised that part of this response in him comes from growing up in a household where the immediate response of his family members to irritation or tiredness or... seemingly anything is to shout and blame the person you're interacting with. Having stayed at his house twice, with said family members in residence, I've experienced it happening, and it's just... very different from how I grew up.

So I think when I try to openly discuss things, if there's any hint of blame or frustration or unhappiness in my approach, that kicks in his learned defensiveness and irritation.

Obviously this is all from my perspective, and no doubt there are areas I need to work on -- but I also think it's unrealistic for me to have to leech all signs of irritation from my voice merely to discuss something that is frustrating.
posted by dorothy humbird at 12:02 PM on September 15, 2006

I liked Gottman's book as well and I think it provides many interesting insights. For long-distance relationships specifically, I recommend "Long Distance Relationships - The Complete Guide" by Gregory T. Guldner, it's based on long-term qualitative studies. One simple insight from that book that I found useful is that people's voices sound both more distrustful and dishonest on the phone, which might be one reason that the phone is not such a good medium for having arguments. Keeping that in mind allows me to sometimes cut my LDR boyfriend more slack on the phone and avoid misunderstandings.

BTW, what's with the anti-intellectualism and hostility in the answers? Since when is it so wrong to try to learn from experts and other people's experience (i.e. statistics)? Or is it that metafilter makes people sound more distrustful and I'm misinterpreting the tone ;-)
posted by meijusa at 12:42 PM on September 15, 2006

"I'm not criticizing or blaming you, I'm just telling you all these things about you that irritate and frustrate me."

I mean, call a spade a spade. There are things that you bother you that he is doing. If you tell him, that's a criticism. And if he's doing them, then you are blaming him.

Now, you can be nice about it and what-have-you, but you are criticizing and blaming.
posted by 23skidoo at 1:52 PM on September 15, 2006

Also, he is communicating with you pretty darn clearly, it sounds: he is telling you that sometimes he feels criticized and blamed by you. Telling him in response not to feel criticized and blamed, no matter how good your intentions or how accurate your analysis of his family dynamics, isn't good communication and it certainly isn't going to be improved by trying to convince him to read a book. (And I say this as someone who is generally pro-therapy and pro-book on this score.)

If you really want to improve the communication in your relationship, you'll have to start with yourself, whether or not he joins you in reading or going to therapy. Simply modifying your own behavior -- learning to raise conflict without blame, for example -- can have a profound impact on the relationship.
posted by scody at 2:26 PM on September 15, 2006

So, one of the problems we run into frequently seems to be that he interprets criticism or blame coming from me, or interprets me as arguing when I am only trying to offer a different viewpoint, explain my thoughts, or bring up something that I see as a barrier or an irritant and should probably be discussed.

You see the world rationally. He sees it emotionally. A lot of people aren't comfortable (or capable of) analyzing situations from their own lives dispassionately. Similarly, he probably senses a lack of empathy from you when you're in your cold, rational mode. You might want to read someone like Deborah Tannen, except reverse her men and women since you're the "man" and he's the "woman."
posted by callmejay at 2:38 PM on September 15, 2006

I should add that those of us who think rationally often overestimate our abilities in analyzing human behavior. Human behavior is shockingly difficult to analyze correctly.
posted by callmejay at 2:39 PM on September 15, 2006

I'm curious now -- in your own relationships, how do you handle it when you find your partner's habits (not calling... repeatedly telling you they'll be able to talk and then not being able to...) upsetting?

Is there a way to address the issue without in some way indicating the previously mentioned criticism or blame?

I admit I generally put a few false steps forward (sarcastic remarks, obviously bitter tone of voice) before I wise up and try to have a honest and straightforward, bitter accusation-free discussion of why I've been upset. This is the point I referred to as trying to "openly discuss things."

Other than skipping the false steps period -- obviously the preferred method, and one I'll be working on -- is there some other strategy that I'm missing?
posted by dorothy humbird at 2:43 PM on September 15, 2006

Your question is totally confusing- can't you just talk to him? Put aside the books, the methods- what would happen if you said to him, "It really upsets me when you promise to call me and then back out"?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:04 PM on September 15, 2006 [2 favorites]

I admit I generally put a few false steps forward (sarcastic remarks, obviously bitter tone of voice) before I wise up and try to have a honest and straightforward, bitter accusation-free discussion of why I've been upset.

If you start out with bitter sarcasm, then you're more than likely going to get a defensive response. This has nothing to do with some sort of vestigial dysfunctional-family-coping mechanism, it has to do with some people just not liking sarcasm.

I'd bet dollars to donuts that he is every bit as upset at your bitter sarcasm as you are at him for not wanting to talk to you as much as you want to talk to him. Until you can stop doing the thing that bugs the crap out of him, you're really not going to have the upper hand in getting him to stop doing the thing that bothers you.
posted by 23skidoo at 3:11 PM on September 15, 2006

"It upsets me when you promise to call and then don't. I need you to follow through on these things, because I feel [slighted/unimportant/scared/whatever your feeling is] when you don't."
posted by scody at 3:13 PM on September 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

It probably feels hard to just come out and say exactly what you're saying. Anyway, you probably don't want to do that. You want *him* to figure out why you're a bit annoyed. This routine never ends well, I've done it myself way too many times. The only way you can aim for a healthier relationship is if you put your own particular desires aside and really talk.

Read those books if you think they'll help you, but if he is uncomfortable in using other people's relationships as a guide to his own then let it slide.

You can talk about communication until the cows come home, but that doesn't mean you're actually communicating.
posted by liquorice at 4:46 PM on September 15, 2006

"I'm curious now -- in your own relationships, how do you handle it when you find your partner's habits (not calling... repeatedly telling you they'll be able to talk and then not being able to...) upsetting?"

The times this has happened to me it meant only one thing: we were approaching the end of the line. I don't think this is something you can cure the way you think you can. If he doesn't call you, it's because he doesn't want to talk to you. Trying to analyze the whole thing out explicitly, not to mention doses of blame & sarcasm, won't get you anywhere, except you'll make him want to call you even less. Relationships don't have to be such hard work, with recourse to self-help manuals. Honestly, do you think you are compatible?
posted by londongeezer at 5:12 PM on September 15, 2006

What both scody and ThePinkSuperhero are recommending are variations on the tried-and-true formula, "I feel [simple emotion name here] when you [do something very specific] because [reason]." "I feel that you are too undependable..." doesn't count -- that's a thought, not a feeling. Start out bringing up one of these now and then when things are otherwise good, not right when you're upset. As you gain practice, even when you're upset, you'll be able to stick to the formula and tone instead of descending into bitter sarcasm. Until then, it's better to wait for a moment when you're calm and in reasonable harmony with him to bring one up.
posted by daisyace at 5:21 PM on September 15, 2006

It sounds like you're frustrated and looking for more effective ways to present your "case" about some run-of-the-mill irritants. What this means is that you're in a relationship with someone who chronically doesn't care what irritates you. I'm not saying it's malicious, but it sounds like your BF's too caught up in his own patterns of behavior/relationships (protecting himself, etc.) to extend any of his resources in your direction. Until he works on his own "stuff" and gets to a point where he has enough of an ego (and I mean that somewhat technically) to set aside his own insecurities, then it doesn't matter what approach or techniques you use.

BTW, I happen to like Gottman. But as someone else mentioned, it sounds like your BF is emotionally-driven. You might try "Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate". Also, start asking yourself if you're getting enough out of this relationship to continue. BTDT.
posted by cocoagirl at 6:29 PM on September 15, 2006

Sadly, I'm afraid I'm going to have to agree with londongeezer. There are only so many ways you can analyze someone's behavioral patterns to determine why they make little or no effort to call you before you come to the "his (or her as the case may be) interest in the relationship is waning and he's trying to give you a not-so-subtle hint" conclusion.

I'm speaking from personal experience on both sides of the equation here. In the past, when I've made little to no effort to proactively contact the woman I'm dating, it was always due to lack of interest on my part. Alternatively, virtually anytime I've found myself in a relationship where I was the one initiating all of the communication, as much as I may have liked to deny it to myself, it was because the women had mentally ended the relationship in their minds before they worked up the courage to tell me (or, to further overuse an already overused cliche, "they just weren't that into me").

I appreciate all the advice people are giving you here about expressing your feelings to him openly and honestly.It's just that in my experience, once the relationship reaches the point to where one partner has to practically beg the other to do something so basic as to call on a regular basis, it's a sign that all is not well.
posted by The Gooch at 10:17 AM on September 16, 2006

how do you handle it when you find your partner's habits (not calling... repeatedly telling you they'll be able to talk and then not being able to...) upsetting?

The key word in this passage is "repeatedly." How I handle this situation is to back off. It's a sign of detachment on the other person's part, and I don't want to put work into a relationship with someone who is disengaging from me.
posted by caitlinb at 5:00 PM on September 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

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