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When Speaking Plainly Goes Wrong

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Communication Uncorked

Communication is supposed to be the key to a healthy relationship, but I am, admittedly, a poor verbal communicator. I was conditioned at an early age, by my parents during adolescence and then by my first long-term boyfriend in my early 20's, to keep my thoughts and feelings to myself. My parents didn’t want to hear anything that contradicted their thoughts, because they ruled the house. My boyfriend, whom I began dating when I was 18, had a similar approach. But he was also guilty of many other transgressions, including partying too much and straying with other women. He didn’t want to talk about these activities because they brought to light his less-than-perfect behavior. So we brushed them under the rug, and I bottled up my anger.

Now, at age 34, I realize I’ve always bottled up my emotions, only to have them periodically explode like soda in a shaken bottle. I am trying to fix this, I really am, but it’s going to take some time. Even knowing that it’s unhealthy and dishonest to hide what I feel, I still hear that little voice in my head chiding me: “You better not tell anybody you feel that way. You’ll be alienated for the rest of your life!”

I’ve discussed this problem quite extensively with a close friend who knows I lack the ability to articulate my thoughts. She has tried incredibly hard to help pull me out of my shell, and her efforts have been greatly appreciated. When I’m struggling to speak, she’ll coax me along. “Come on, say what you mean. Just spit it out, don’t think about it.”

Mixed Emotions

The strength I find in this relationship is very important to me. So I decided, in a very uncharacteristic move, to tell my friend how I feel. I started off like this: “I just want you to know what a great friend you’ve been to me. I hope that someday I can repay you for all you’ve done. I know I have not given to you what you’ve given to me, and, for that, I apologize. I promise to try to be a better friend.”

“What do you mean?” she asked with a note of suspicion in her voice.

“Just that our friendship isn’t balanced,” I replied. “You’ve done way more for me than I have for you. I want you to know I recognize that and will try harder.”

She thought about this for a moment with her chin in her hand. Her answer, when it finally came, shocked me. “You’re right,” she said. “I’ve been the better friend of the two of us. I see what you’re saying.”

With that, I didn’t hear from her for more than a week. I sensed she was mad at me, although I didn’t know why, and finally called her. Over the phone, she explained that she had never before realized how much she had given, and how much I had taken. After talking with me, she realized how disappointed she was in our friendship. She said she needed some time for herself and would call when she felt ready to talk.

How Much Is Too Much?

In a nutshell, I am now asking myself if I revealed too much to my friend. Did I take the communication factor too far? Obviously, I inadvertently said something wrong, but all I wanted to express was my gratitude. Does this mean what I said came out the wrong way or that I shouldn't have said anything at all?

I am now more perplexed by communication than ever. The juggling act between saying what you mean, without revealing too much and without hurting another’s feelings, exhausts me. I’m not saying I want to go back to my previous clamped-mouth self, because that only got me into situations that eventually became unbearable. But I do wish I had a handbook that explained the perfect means to communicate with everyone in my life.

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