“We Need to Talk” – or Is It Off the Table?

Once again, Mo has managed to articulate so much of how I feel about yet another topic – the dreaded “We need to talk“.

I’m so right there with you on the urgency of discussing issues as they come up, but sometimes still needing processing time before raising the questions, along with the abject terror and complete panic that any version of “We need to talk”, or “I want to go over X with you” brings up. Once I’m ready to deal with something, though, I really need to handle it right then and there, with no further delay.

The one thing that really is absolutely clear to me is that it is absolute death to a relationship to ever table things when issues do arise, pretty much no matter what else is going on in either person’s life or the relationship. All they do is pile up and fester, and build up a backlog and logjam until they totally drown out everything else, and reach a point where it becomes absolutely impossible to unravel the mess because you end up not even knowing where to start any more, and the resentments have built to an impossible level.

If you take too much time to process before bringing the issue up and working through it together, the moment is past. Life moves on to the next thing. It gets shoved down where it begins building up and festering, and isn’t resolved by the time the next thing comes up.

In her brilliant book Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay, Mira Kirshenbaum says that she has never in her entire career seen a relationship survive when “off-the-table-itis” is in play. When people refuse to talk about an issue, and keep on not wanting to talk about it (or more than one issue), relationships die. Period. If your partner “consistently blocks your attempts to bring up topics or raise questions, particularly about things you care about”, off-the-table-itis is at play. It doesn’t matter whether the topic is, whether it relates directly to the relationship or not. Blocking discussion of any sort blocks communications altogether.

Off-the-table-itis is dismissive. It’s inherently belittling and minimizing. It is neglectful and uncaring. It is cruel and unkind. It tells your partner that you really don’t give a shit about them or what they have to say, and speaks far more loudly than anything else you might do or say to the contrary.

Off-the-table-itis is in play when your partner expects you to listen endlessly to his litany of repeated woes (especially when he does nothing to change them), yet shuts you up when you bring up issues of your own that he doesn’t want to hear. When it’s OK for him to drone on and on about the same problems day after day for years, but the second or third time you bring up one of your own, somehow you are just adding to his own load intolerably and he shuts you up. When he acts as if his troubles are more important than yours and should take priority.

And as such, off-the-table-itis is a particularly insidious form of abuse that is not well-recognized for what it is, especially since it may well be couched in such drama as the perpetrator painting himself as the victim, often of issues entirely outside the relationship such as at work or with his family, depicting himself as one who needs to be taken care of more than you do. He then turns you into the bad guy if you want to still sort things out, or protest something he does, thereby only adding to his woes.

When I get hit with that “We have to talk” thing, it sometimes sends me into a blind panic, particularly if the relationship is on shaky grounds and he’s been engaging in clear off-the-table-itis. I may start looping and freaking out, may even run away initially, maybe even screaming. That’s rare, but it has happened to me. But given half a chance, I will calm down quickly and come right back to the table, as long as the other party doesn’t end up going off looping away on his own, freaking out at my own freak out.

And I will usually come back within minutes, perhaps an hour or two at most. Given the chance. None of this days to weeks later after the rest of life and endless stresses calm down stuff.

Actually, I’ll come back pretty much immediately anyways, no matter what he does. But his reaction at that point will determine whether or not the conversation actually ends up taking place. If he’s still there, it will. If he’s flipped out and thought I was blocking things, it may not.

But I will be there, and I will discuss it.

I need to be able to come back to the table quickly to ensure that we both keep the conversation open, no matter what, and to not table things. When issues arise, I also really badly need to be able to address them right then, when they are particularly urgent, and not put them off until later.

If life events are such that a complete discussion is not possible at that moment, at minimum I need reassurance that things are OK – and that my concerns are both legitimate and being taken seriously. Attempts to dismiss my concerns will only make my need to talk about it RIGHT NOW escalate.

Because life and its stresses don’t stop just because they’re piling up, God knows, and putting off discussions until even later in the week (never mind indefinitely) can lead to a total logjam and turn weekends and other time together into things to dread when a pile of crap has built up, especially when you’re with someone who is masterfully capable of twisting everything you both say to the point that you can no longer keep your own thoughts straight on one issue, never mind a logjam that have now all collided together and become hopelessly intertwined.

My father taught me to never go to bed angry at my partner. It’s not always completely possible in busy lives, but it’s a goal I have always worked towards. It’s mostly doable if the communications are open enough, but is completely impossible if they are not, and if one person keeps blocking the discussion. Or has had a history of blocking other issues that have ended up festering, even if they are not related. It is the blocking of communication of any sort that stops it all dead in its tracks.

I’d give my eye teeth and maybe even my right arm to find someone who could handle this the way Mo’s The Dominant Guy does. Who is secure enough to contain my fears and hold me until they abate, and can carry on with the conversation when either of us needs to. Who is both willing and able to meet me at the table like an adult instead of a petulant two year old.

April 30, 2011

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