If only relationships came with a Lego manual...

We've all felt betrayed at some point--been the butt of someone's joke, found out that so-called friends were talking about us behind our back. Middle school and junior high--that was standard operating procedure. 

But most of us leave our childhood and childish behavior behind. We take with us the scars and the hang-ups, and as adults, we still find ourselves in situations where we feel like we're right back there, and the scars rip open.

It's no fun to go through. I'm not sure if it's fun on the other side, to be the one snickering, the one twisting the knife, or if most the time it's simple miscommunication. We've all been on the receiving side, and we've probably been on the other end, too. No doubt we've felt justified when we snicker, when we mock, when we act passive-aggressively towards someone. We've rationalized the behavior, decided we have the moral high ground, or that we were just kidding.

Both parties know, though, the difference between just kidding and being shitty.

If it still rips me up when it happens to me in my mid-forties, what the heck does it feel like to our kids, the children we work so hard to equip to face the world, to distinguish between genuine friendship and lip service, when they are the butt of the joke? When they realize they fell for lip service?

Relationships are tricky--going from acquaintance to friend is fraught with obstacles, and all it takes is a big enough miscommunication or a large enough divide in something important for it to go all the way in the opposite direction to hurt feelings and no relationship at all.

As big boys and girls, we know that, but we also know it sucks just as bad every time it happens to us. And the blow is even greater when we watch it happen to our children.

One of the things I try to remember before I react is to consider intent versus delivery--something I sincerely hope with all my heart that people will do for my children, for whom communication is often so difficult, and for whom friendships are like diamonds to be prized above everything else, even Legos. 

What was the person's intent? Is it possible that the person is stuck in a situation where he or she is unsure of how to react? Does the tone of voice and word choice not match his or her emotional state (much like my Bobby's communication)? How can I get clarification of the person's intent without deepening the potential miscommunication?

Online, or via text, time is on my side--I can stop and think before I react with my gut. I can run it by other individuals. I can sleep on it. I can reread it or replay it again as many times and from as many possible angles as I can think of.

I can do that before I choose to act. I can avoid knee-jerk reactions. I can try to separate out my emotions and get myself in check before I respond.

Sometimes, that's enough. Sometimes, it's out of my reach. Sometimes friendships end and end abruptly with no chance for closure, and those hurts tag along, ready to attach themselves to new relationships.

My children have taught  me to be direct and blunt, to be honest. To avoid pussyfooting around issues and to directly ask. I love it when I can engage in relationships where honesty, unvarnished and sometimes acutely blunt, prevails. I know I can stop at their words. Except for those times where I can't and I need to ask for clarification. And that's okay--it's so vitally important for my kids to learn that they don't have to pretend to get something, that they can ask direct questions until they do understand--that they will be met with patience and acceptance--when I provide that to them, they provide it to me. My adult friends with kids on the spectrum are very similar--we speak our minds and we give each other a break and we work to make sure we understand--well, at least the friendships that have lasted do--and maybe that's key. Maybe that's the difference.

We give each other a break. We give our kids a break. We breathe, we back off, we wait and we make sure. We cut each other slack. And we do our level best to always be genuine in our communication.

I believe that's one of the most important lessons I can teach my kids *and that they can teach me* is to have faith in each other's good intent and to be compassionate. 

To wait. To listen. To accept.

But somehow I also have to teach my kids the unfortunate reality that we have to know when that's the right approach and when it's not, when the right thing to do is to end a relationship because the other party is disingenuine. 

How do I arm myself and my kids with this polar opposite mentality--to trust until the other person gives you reason not to, to give until the other person shows you all he or she does is take?

How many chances does a person get?

How do you find a way to be direct when the other person is passive-aggressive?

Can you? Or is anything you do also going to be passive aggressive? Is there any point in being direct and asking questions regarding intent to someone you've realized is passive-aggressive?

Hell, is this post tacitly passive-aggressive?

If we as adults have such a difficult time untangling this kind of stuff, how do we expect our kids to do it? 


melbo said...

Thank you for writing this and expressing so succinctly how I've been feeling. Yes, this is all about me! But really you have articulated something I've been trying to get my head around for some time.

I know it is a belief that indirect communication is passive aggressive but I think it's a common style and it is one some of us are well-schooled in: particularly women who have often been told not to be direct, not to demand, not to nag ...

It's nice to think we can be direct all the time but with some people it is just not possible.

Each relationship has its own dynamic. Some relationships are just never in that category for whatever reason - circumstances, personalities, different beliefs.

An uneasy balance exists where the two parties are involved in an elaborate dance not to say too much, not to step on the other's toes, not to demand anything for fear the balance will be tipped.

Clearly I speak from a place of knowing because I have just lost the friendship of someone I cared about deeply. The sad part is there was no argument, no words were exchanged but the hurt feelings were profound. Because neither of us could be open about it, the friendship died.

I have treated it as a death and had to accept moments of grief when something happens that reminds me of that person. I still can't really believe it's over but I have to accept it and move on.

My sympathies and sorry for the long comment. Believe me though, this post is not what I'd call passive aggressive. I think you have clearly expressed how you feel. I hope the person reads it and I hope they understand what you're trying to say.

K Wombles said...

I'm so sorry--the sad thing is that even years later, decades later, we can grieve the loss of a friendship. We invest so much of ourselves that in some cases, it may be even more painful than a divorce.

Big hugs. I hate that you're hurting. I wish relationships were simpler.

We tried the direct, relatively blunt but tactful route first, but it did no good, and the hurtful behavior increased, unfortunately. I'm saddened and frustrated, but I don't see what else I can do but move on.

Stephanie said...

My first reaction was, "I hate those manuals. Legos are supposed to be free-form!"

Then, I thought, "You know, it would be nice if human relationships came with a manual."

Then, I actually read your post.

Sometimes those first reactions slip out, especially when they happen in person. The first thing that comes to mind, the gut reaction, pops out of our mouths before we've even processed what the other person has said.

Sometimes it's the second reaction that comes out. The tacit agreement, the seemingly friendly response that still lacks genuine content. There are a lot of associations out there that are better than strangers, but not quite friends.

As I read, I thought about some of our own earlier interactions. We were coming from totally different "places" and we seemed to misunderstand each other every time we interacted.

It wasn't until I realized that you and Kathleen were friends that I realized that I must be missing something. "Kathleen is cool. If she's so close with KW [I didn't know what the letters stood for back then], then KW must have more going for her then I realize."

Maybe you didn't experience any of that. Maybe it was just me misunderstanding and reacting poorly.

All I know is that I'm glad I learned how to listen to you and that I'm glad I've had the opportunity to learn from you. I don't know that I would have seen that I could disengage from the in-fighting without disengaging from the work without your example.

Maybe being direct isn't socially acceptable or particularly effective in "normal" relationships, but maybe it is. I don't know. Being past the outskirts of normal myself, I can't say. But I have studied communications and I know active listening is taught so often precisely because people don't do it.

I've tried it and I've definitely improved my relationships. Instead of nodding or going along as if I understood, I've spoken up. I've said I don't understand. I've said I couldn't follow along. It was hard at first. I only did it in "safe" situations, like my B.S. graduation party where I was surrounded by people who loved me for who I was/am.

Maybe it is a different approach, but I figure if the relationship can't stand such things as being able to admit I don't understand, then it's not going to be a relationship I can maintain.

And now I've reached the point where I don't know if I'm being coherent or not, so I'm going to stop. I suspect I'm rambling; if so, it is well-intentioned.

K Wombles said...

Thanks, Stephanie. I think being direct deliberately can be really scary--we are afraid of rejection. But, I thing you're right--if a relationship can't handle directness, then it's better to know. We spend so much energy trying to communicate effectively, to find acceptance, and we're taught as children to compromise who we are to get friends--that faux friends are better than no friends.

And so many of us parents of kids on the spectrum, like I have, only find our true tribe, when we meet other parents of spectrum kids and autistic adults. And we go, ahhh...it's a tremendous relief to finally lay down the mask and just be. Even if it leads to rejection--at least they were rejecting the real me, and that's okay.

I lot of what I've learned over the last five years came from making myself vulnerable online. I hope it's made me a better mother to my kids and a better teacher.

Legos should totally be free form--it's frustrating to me that there's only kits sold--although the girls adore the kits. I have to go on ebay and buy mixed used bag sets of 500 for Lily and Rosie so they can also build what they want to. I wish they'd sell both side by side.

I'm glad you hung in and gave me the chance. I value your friendship. It's funny how hard it can be to communicate--we're all coming at it from our own perspective and life experiences--it's a wonder when we do manage it! And a blessing. :)

Stephanie said...

You can still get Legos in bulk. I've gotten boxes of Legos at Toys R Us and then I found that you can buy them direct from Legos.com in a variety of bulk packages. As many Legos as Alex goes through, it's the only way we can keep up with him, because he doesn't like to take his designs apart. He works on them for days or weeks until he's completely satisfied and then he'll keep them just like that. If someone breaks them, he'll put them back together. So, he needs a steady supply of a variety of blocks.

Rejection is hard. Maybe it's the writer in me, but I've gotten a lot better at not taking it personally. It's harder when it is personal, but at the same time it's also okay. Offline, I have relatively few friends. I can make friends and then they find out what my life is like and then they just drop out of my life. That's okay--I don't have the time or energy to chase after them. The friends that stick around are true friendships that can stand the test of time. They're friends for life, even if we don't see each other all that often.

And, you're right, a lot of them are people who either have disabilities themselves or have children with disabilities or both. Not all of them are on the autism spectrum, but they're all off the spectrum of "normal" in one way or another, whether it's considered a disability or not. Oddly enough, even the clients I attract tend to be off the spectrum of "normal."

I firmly believe if we open ourselves up to others and share who we really are and embrace others as they really are, then the people we really need will come into our lives. It's risky and scary, but it's worth it. There are a lot of wonderful people out there. I think learning to find them and keep them in our lives is something that we learn throughout our lives. The lesson is never done.

I, too, value your friendship. Communication is hard, even though we are both communications professionals. Our jobs involve teaching, communicating, and enlightening others and yet...it's still hard and it's still risky...and it's very much worth the effort. :)