It's a Break-Up in Communication

It’s a Break-Up in Communication


Relationships are hard. At least they are for me. Some might argue that they are hard because I think they are hard—a self-fulfilling prophecy—but since the expression is somewhat of a cliché, I think it’s safe to assume that many people feel this way. But are they hard for everyone the same?

I recently ended yet another relationship. Not to sound like a total curmudgeon but after two decades of dating, this shit is getting old. In the last eight years, I haven’t dated a single guy who was right for me. But why? If I am arguably the highest authority on me, how can I be so utterly terrible at choosing a suitable partner for myself? I think I might be able to effectively answer that if I had an entire book to respond, but since I don’t, I will focus on one common thread: differences in communication.

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, blah blah blah—I can’t talk to men. After spending 20 years and countless dollars in therapy and 10 years and countless hours in 12-step work, what I have gotten for my time, money and effort is a language that truly articulates my feelings. Unfortunately, when it comes to dating, this language has proven to be like speaking Cantonese in the Republic of Congo. When I am struggling within a relationship and trying to talk to my partner, I find that what I get back is confirmation that they have absolutely no idea what I am talking about.

I am not saying the men I date are stupid. I am also not saying that I am the President of the United States of Communication. I have a lot to learn about subtlety, establishing boundaries rather than talking about establishing boundaries, confronting issues rather than letting them fester and not taking someone’s character flaws personally. But the real issue is that either I don’t seem to know how to express myself in ways that the men I have dated can hear —or they don’t particularly care.

Both = not good.

My most recent relationship, the one I just ended, was the most promising one I have had in many years. He was a good guy: earnest, supportive and I believe he truly loved me. But in the end I severed ties in an email, something I didn’t feel great about but also felt was necessary. In the eight months we dated, we broke up five times. Why? Because we couldn’t stay broken up. Something would happen and I would express my distress, try to explain to him what I needed, and he would tell me that he would change. But that is always the wrong answer. People rarely change unless they want to change. A more hopeful response would have been an acknowledgment of my needs and a commitment to try and meet them. I am sure this was an undetectable difference in terminology to him, but it’s a world of difference in his understanding of what my needs are to me.

In my experience, when someone tells you they will change, it means that they will try to conform to what they think you want them to be and that is a recipe for failure and resentment. But an acknowledgment of your needs and a commitment to try and meet them is about listening and compromising—what I understand to be the essence of a successful relationship and something I have never had. But is that because I am an ineffective communicator or is it because the kind of men I choose to date just don’t speak my language?

So when it struck me for the fifth time in eight months that the guy I was dating was not the guy for me, I knew there was nothing more to discuss. We had tried that already—many, many times—and all that came out of it was him arguing about my grievances point by point. We needed to skip the formalities and get into the results. So I sent him a very clear email: I need to end this. There is nothing to discuss. Please don’t contact me. I am not trying to hurt you; I am trying to free you. We need to move on. 

My 12-step program friends felt this was a clear and kind email, simple yet leaving nothing to be misunderstood. This is the school I now come from. It’s taken me years to learn the value of simplicity and understand that setting boundaries is loving both to myself and the other person. Given our history, talking to him in person or on the phone was merely a formality that would have allowed him to ask me for reasons I wanted to leave and given him the space to argue them. Since I had already given him that luxury in previous break-ups, I now knew that the only thing this led to was exhaustion and confusion. In short, it had not been effective.

My non-program friends felt that breaking up in an email was cold and my to-the-point language was harsh. They felt I “owed” him more of an explanation. And there was a time I would have agreed with them and their conflicting feedback would have tortured my untreated codependency. But I am grateful now to finally understand that I don’t owe anything. The only thing I owe is honesty to myself and that is what I gave: my honest needs and my honest feelings in a way that couldn’t be read into or ignored. And while I knew the email would hurt, it really wasn’t my intention; the pain was just a shitty byproduct of what I felt was the best course of action, much like the pain of ripping off a bandage. But in this I also gave him a gift: the gift of anger. It’s a hell of a lot easier to move on from a relationship when you think the other person acted like an asshole. And I can live with that.

So here I am, single again and wondering if things are ever going to be different. So much has changed for the better in my years of sobriety, but this is the one area that seems to stay exactly the same. I would be foolish to not see that the common denominator here is me, whether it’s the crazy language I speak or the pattern of men I choose. I can’t help but wonder what am I going to do differently next time.


1 Comment

  1. Sorry for the endless climb. I’ve had so many relationships I can’t remember their names. Geeze, just typing that seems pathetic. I tell myself I’m in my 50’s so that somehow takes the edge off of my shameful conduct. 50’s means old and been around forever. How many grandmothers have I passed the mashed potatoes to as the new hopeful for the wayward grand daughter? How many front wheel drives have I traded in on American V8’s after getting comfortable? I don’t even know.. It’s sad.. Don’t even get me started on loans, geographical cures, visions of the good life I’ve expected others to focus on or be manipulated into as I arrange our new life together..

    All the great one liner wisdom for the “new and suffering man” that gives my lonely life purpose like ” ya can’t get drunk on a bottle of ex-wife, alcohol gets you drunk” or “she left me and took me with her”.. AA women, you rub their heads and their pants fall down.. Under every skirt there’s a higher power. Eh, I did put down my 4th Step and marry Miss Dunkin Donuts the AA queen who did like the naughty .. I really thought that arrangement would stay put. It lasted until I read the sex relations of her 4th Step she left out in plain sight, actually it was in her drawer under some other papers in an envelope that said private please do not read. I just innocently happened upon it while she was at work. OK, maybe I was a little insecure and was afraid of anything that may effect my control over her like she liked someone more than me from her past? Yeah, maybe a tad obsessed, all right, certifiable..I was thinking this information would let me know and understand my new wife better. It did. She was just like me, she did not blush. I still shudder at the thought of that day. It was as if satan himself was reading along with me. Anyway, I will never do that again.

    I had bought some land up north and was planning my escape. I would live alone in the middle of 10 acres in the mountains. I was totally happy with this prospect. I envisioned maybe an occasional date with the local waitress from the diner or grateful over the hill cow girl but that was it! I wanted no part of relationships, I was learning to live with myself and liking it so far. I think it’s called growing up but I did want some other explanation of course.

    So Yes I meet this girl. She is different or maybe I was different, not sure. I do know I was not wanting to jump in the sack and tag her ear, there seemed to be more to it all. I just wanted to talk, she was easy to talk to. Sounds silly I know but this was completely new to me. Being friends first, I realized I never really had a girl friend I just had girls, hostages, mommy’s, daughters, babysitters yes, but no friends. I didn’t know how to be friends through the emotional bondage I brought along with me, the selfishness, the survival tactics.

    That was maybe 14 years ago at this writing. We’ve been together since. In an hour we’re to be at the hospital for her breast cancer surgery, the second one in two weeks. I pray to serve my partner in any way possible mostly everyday not just today. We’re best friends. I take care of myself so I am the best friend I can be to her. We trust eachother.

    Don’t give up, it will happen for you when you are ready to let it. As I began to care enough about myself to take care of myself I understood my place. I wanted to be a man or what I believed what a man should be. This would be my side of the relationship, what I offer up. Emotional security, friendship, a safe place to sleep.

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Danielle Stewart is a writer as well as a recovering stand-up comedian. She has written for Us Weekly and Life & Style Magazine, as well as MTV and E! Networks. You can listen to her strong and typically uninformed opinions on #TheDaniStew Experience on iTunes.