As a child, I watched All in the Family with my parents. Of all the things that Archie Bunker said and did, the thing that bothered me most was when he would say, “Stifle it, Edith.”
Every time I heard Archie tell Edith to stifle, I tensed up, thinking how mean that was that he wouldn’t let his wife talk.
Although I like to think I’m fairly organized in my verbal communication, the reality is that in my personal life, I tend to meander through a story—partly because it helps me process what happened and partly to invite the listener in to the experience with me.
I tell stories like Edith Bunker does.
Being interrupted mid-story is, well, stifling. I sometimes have to go back to the beginning to help me get to the point where I was. I had to recreate the emotional sequence in order to even remember where I’d been.
In You Just Don’t Understand (affiliate link), linguist Deborah Tannen makes a point that has stuck with me for 25 years:
Men use language to exchange information and to establish their authority; women use language to develop and maintain relationships.
That is very much the case in our marriage.
For much of our marriage, Big Guy tried to hurry me along in conversation. He was a regular Joe Friday: “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Only he would say, and I would think,
“Skip the story and get to the actual information I need to know.”
. . . How do I know what you need to know? I’m telling you this so you’ll know me better and understand why I’m in a good/bad mood today. The whole story is part of the information because it includes my feelings.
“What’s your point?”
. . . Huh? Am I supposed to have a point? I’m just telling you what happened today. There’s no point.
He wanted me to rush past my story to get to whatever he thought was relevant.
He sometimes would interrupt the flow in order to deal with one piece of information—which not only frustrated me because I felt stifled, it also meant that I had to go through the whole thing all over again just to pick up where the interruption made me leave off.
So there Big Guy was, frustrated because I wasn’t giving him the information in a way that he needed it. Meanwhile, I was frustrated because I experienced his request for “just the facts, ma’am” as a rejection of the relationship I was trying to maintain.
I needed to connect with him. I craved his participation and response. I needed his attention.
Sometimes, I would try to tell him things in a just-the-facts way, but it was always a struggle. Since my telling of an event was relational and included much of my emotional journey, sticking to the facts meant that I had to suppress everything that mattered to me about what happened. And I would be second guessing everything.
I have to pay so much attention to my words. If I say too much about how I felt when so-and-so said what she did to me, is he going to get bored and shut me down? If I say something that he would considered important information too early in the story, will he tune out the rest of what I say because he thinks he’s already gotten what is important? Will his focus on what matters to him mean that he won’t hear what matters to me?
So I would tell the story his way and end of feeling frustrated and unaccepted, or I would tell the story my way and watch his eyes glaze over and realize that he was paying more attention to the television than he was to me.
Anything that sent the message “stifle” installed a barrier in our relationship. How could my own husband value me so little that he didn’t let me express myself in the way that I needed to? The message “stifle” said to me, “My need for information is more important than your need to relay the story. We either have the conversation my way or we don’t have the conversation at all. You are not important.”
As I tell a story, I invite my listener into my emotional journey as well as the facts. It is an attempt to connect, to build and maintain a relationship.
Big Guy’s efforts to control how I expressed myself left me feeling completely rejected.
Whereas I used language to develop and maintain our relationship, Big Guy tried to develop and maintain our relationship through—you guessed it—sex.
In addition to the fact that I said no quite frequently, when I did say yes, it was usually with plenty of restrictions: Only with the light off. Don’t expect me to be too involved. Not while the kids are awake. Only in one of these two or three positions. These two activities are okay. Those ten are not.
Big Guy was trying to express himself with me in the way that mattered to him, and my restrictions said to him:
“Stifle it, Big Guy.”
He needed to connect with me. He craved my participation and response. He needed my attention.
He would usually do things my way in order to get some of that attention; he would end up feeling frustrated and unaccepted. Or, he would push for things to go his way and see my eyes glaze over while I was thinking about the grocery list instead of about him.
My “stifle” message installed a barrier in our relationship. How could his own wife value him so little that she didn’t let him express himself sexually in the way that he needed to? The message from me was, “My need for control/sleep/comfort is more important than your need to have sex. We either have sex my way or we don’t have sex at all. You are not important.”
Sex was the way my husband connected most strongly with me on an emotional level. Doing things my way, with all the restrictions I imposed, meant that he had to suppress the part of him that was reaching out to me. He would be second guessing everything.
If I ask for too much, she’ll shut me down completely. If I do it her way, maybe she’ll at least get into it. Why is she so tuned out? Why does she resist what matters to me?
My efforts to control how my husband was allowed to express himself sexually left him feeling completely rejected.
Big Guy and I are both grateful our marriage is different now.
My husband no longer sends me the “stifle” message. I know that when I really need to talk through a story from my day, he will listen to me and give me his attention. I now begin many of my stories with a preview of the main points—or I let him know I just need to ramble and that there isn’t a point. I feel loved and accepted.
I no longer send Big Guy the “stifle” message, either. He knows that when he needs to express himself sexually, I will give him my time and attention. He knows he is loved and accepted.
We used to be gate-keepers, with my husband trying to control the flow of conversation between us and me trying to control the flow of sexual interaction between us.
Both of us used to be thinking more about what we wanted and needed than about what our spouses wanted and needed. When I think about it now, it makes a lot less sense than it used to. Does it really matter if we do things my way all the time? We have the lifetime of our marriage. We can both have things the way we want lots of times.
One of the great things about marriage is that when we let go of that control, our needs and wants can mesh together in ways that meet both our needs.
And neither one of us feels stifled anymore.
Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography