Over the past couple of months I have gained an appreciation for how the monkey must have felt chasing the weasel in the nursery song, “All Around the Mulberry Bush”. I envision the monkey chasing and chasing that weasel until he is so exhausted and dizzy he can hardly function. I see in my mind’s eye the monkey collapsing during the lyric, “Pop! Goes the weasel,” and giving up, only to start anew the next day.
The feeling of that monkey is one I can directly relate to in my topsy turvy life since Rainbow came out. I knew there would be challenges, choices, and ultimately changes to my life resulting from Rainbow’s revelations in his sexuality. However, what I did not expect was the sheer amount of deep, meaningful conversations about a variety of topics. Not only is the amount shocking, but also that most conversations have only slight, nuanced differences between them. The resulting impact of these conversations has astounded me in many ways.
The Art of Conversations
Being in professional fields our whole lives, Rainbow and I have been trained in many “soft” skills. Among our training have been sessions on communication. Classes with focus on crucial conversations or conflict resolution have been extremely helpful in our current situation. Due to our background, I feel we have a distinct advantage over the vast majority of married couples when it comes to discussing and adapting to significant life changes.
While every conversation is different, there a few key things that can prevent the discussion from turning into a verbal brawl. For those of you that have not had any type of crucial conversations training, let me share some high points that help us have productive discussions.
First, it’s important to understand that when there is conflict between parties there is a scale on which most people handle that conflict. On one end of the scale is silence; avoidance of the issue. On the other end of the scale is violence; facing the issue but not handling it well. In the middle is dialogue where we address the issue and do it well.
Often people have a default approach (or may rotate between the two approaches) but rarely is the default setting a healthy dialogue. Rainbow and I are no exception to this rule. His default is silence and mine is violence.
In order for us to have meaningful conversations, managing the energy of the conversation is critical. No one likes to ice a swollen jaw of silence due to harshly flung, open-handed word slaps driven by out-of-control emotions.
Five key actions we both are actively aware of during each conversation with flaring emotions are:
- Understanding and focusing on the mutual goal: We both want what’s best for each other and our family
- Stopping the blame game: Cutting out “yous” and avoiding defensive positioning by thinking “I don’t need to change.”
- Ask and re-iterate the other person’s story: “Tell me more…” statements and paraphrase what is heard
- Facts not feelings: Remove the feelings through imaging how you would summarize the issue to a third party or use “I feel” statements instead
- Discuss options and take action: Focusing on the issue and mutual goal, review all options and decide on an action together
In my experience the two hardest actions are finding the mutual goal and focusing on facts not feelings. Professional experience has clubbed me over the head many times to remind me to pull pronouns (I, me, you, they, us) out of the conversation, helping avoid the blame game and prevent defensive positioning. As for action and I, we are BFFs thanks to my Type A personality.
Despite this background, the conversations are far from easy or always well executed. Nor does our knowledge of how to have dialogue mean we have opportunity to have the dialogue when needed.
It’s all well and good to know what and even have a inkling how to have dialogue versus silence or violence conversations, but life isn’t so neat outside of a classroom. The reality is much messier no matter the issues being addressed.
Our story started with a bang! It doesn’t matter that you know to stay calm, often our conversations begin with high emotion. I am normally the initiator since my default approach is violence. Adding to that is that fact that most of our discussions happen after the kids are in bed (when we are both tired) and a glass of adult beverage has been consumed. Alcohol and calm do not mix, but it sure does loosen the tongue to start the ball rolling!
It has taken time since the start of this new journey to truly implement the conversation training we have.
When our life road started to curve about 9 months prior, the conversations were few and far between. The most intense conversation was the first. True to (what I now know to be) standard form, the discussion happened after 8:30 at night and with alcohol involved. This conversation was highly volatile and could hardly be classified as a conversation. It worked to our advantage that Rainbow’s default was silence to manage the energy, but I can’t say anything productive came out of that conversation. I don’t recall going to bed mad, but I’m sure I went to bed feeling hurt and confused.
Because he shared the news of his changing sexuality via written form and the fact that he wanted to publish the information for other’s benefit (much like I am doing here), the next night we continued the conversation. This discussion followed more of the general guidelines for dialogue outlined above.
- The mutual goal was to published a well-thought out written document to assist others who may be struggling with their sexuality too.
- Written form helped us both focus on walking through the events (facts) that generated the development of his feelings.
- The facts focus removed any blame game issues and the whole document was about understanding his story.
- The action was straight forward, write a logical article and publish.
This “conversation” continued until the article was completed about 6 weeks later. It was by far the longest single topic focused conversation we have had. In the end both parties feelings were expressed in a calm manner despite the explosive beginning. At this point, I was emotionally settled and no physical action was being taken to change our general life situation. Life carried on like it always had. Rainbow was using terms like bi-sexual allowing me to feel that my entire existence was not being threatened.
Fast forward a couple months. While I was generally settled, Rainbow was still struggling. He continued to not sleep well and kept journaling his feelings. He told me later that he wanted to talk to me many times about this internal struggle, but he remained silent (his default approach). It was at this point he sought individual counseling with my support.
Over the several months of his individual counseling, we had the occasional conversation. Again, these conversations were late at night, usually after an adult beverage. These conversations violated the main purpose of crucial conversations or conflict resolution. Neither of us identified or shared a mutual goal. I did not yet see the issue his change of sexuality had for our relationship. His goal was gaining a better understanding of his sexuality and trying to communicate it to me. My goal during these conversations was more on his level of commitment to us. Two very different goals.
The difference in goals caused us to drift apart. The conversations were happening, but were not productive and caused the issue to fester and become bigger. We were both becoming insecure in the relationship and questioning our own individual identities as well.
Due to the lack of productive communication, the pressure built and came to a head after a crash course on how not to tell others. Rainbow decided to tell a mutual couple friend, Adrian, about his sexuality struggles. I did not know of his decision to tell the friend, nor the exact words he used, until after the fact. The wife reached out to me and we went out for dinner and drinks that weekend.
Meeting up with my very good friend started a fireworks show at home. My friend and I met in the evening and alcohol was involved for that crucial conversation. It was with her that the term gay was used for the first time in association with Rainbow.
It’s funny how just one word can change so much.
Coming home late (around 11PM), I jump started the conversation with a single rage hazed question, “Are you GAY?” This conversation, fueled by emotion to start, was finally brought to level around 3AM. It was a weekend of lost sleep, long discussions, heaps of feelings, and yet progress.
The mutual goal (issue really) is uncovered. Our marriage is changing. How is it changing? Is it a divorce? Is it something else? How do we learn the options? Where do we get support? How do each of us determine within the confines of daily life what we individually want? Are you really sure in your sexuality conclusions? When will the physical changes reflecting our emotional decisions happen? I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, are you? What even is the shoe? I’m feeling rejected and alone, are you? Are you committed to me? Am I committed to you? How does our faith work with all of this?
All of our recent conversations have been some variation surrounding the above questions. There have been lots of tears. Lots. Of. Tears. We have calm focused discussions almost everyday now. Occasionally we have 2 or 3 conversations in a day. We actively seek time away from the kids to chat, even if only for ten or fifteen minutes at a time.
Unfortunately, many conversations happen in the middle of the night. It’s amazing what feelings slink out from under the bed when the rest of the world is sleeping. While it is not the best time for discussions, we have discovered it is better to wake the other person and share the tears and fears.
Another quirk to our relationship is shower time. Somewhere along the way, we started showering together on a daily basis (usually at night). This isn’t an excuse for or foreplay for brown chicken, brown cow. Our time in the shower is 15-20 minutes of time for conversation with each other about whatever. This time helped keep our sanity when we had very small children. Now this time is also used to continue productive conversations about our marriage.
The results of the more productive conversations have surprised me in many ways.
For us these discussions have lead to three main improvements in our lives.
- The bond between us has strengthen through our sharing of vulnerabilities. We both feel better after each discussion, even without concrete resolutions. Improving the bond does not mean that we both don’t feel confused and insecure in the future. But more that we are not alone, still loved (even if that love is morphing), and decisions will be made together.
- Our physical intimacy has increased and become more passionate in many ways. Obviously, this will not be true of individuals who’s sexual revelations allow them to realize they never truly enjoyed the physical relationship. However, that is not our situation and sharing vulnerabilities increased the closeness, improving the over all intimacy.
- We are fully exploring all aspects of our relationship, not just the sexual side. The “Who am I?” discussions for both of us have allowed open examination of life. Goals, values, housework, careers, kids, etc. are all on the table to be compassionately and genuinely assessed.
I imagine most of our impacts stem from having a healthy relationship to start. However, all productive conversations should bring a sense of peace when there is conflict.
Another shocking result of the conversations over the last few weeks is that we had completely skipped the action step required for productive conversations. While I am definitely an action girl, it became apparent that we weren’t taking any action as a couple since this started. He had taken action with counseling and read some informational books, but together we had not done anything.
We have corrected this oversight and now have two action items as a couple.
- The issue of the marriage changing and all the questions made us realize we needed more outside help. So, we have sought marriage counseling.
- The second realization is, neither one of us have a clue really about non-traditional family structures. Therefore, we are researching together what those family relationships look like and challenges we may have with them.
In hindsight, we realize that when all of this started a year ago, we should have established regular touch base conversations in neutral space with a basic discussion topics. Doing so would have saved us heartbreak and prevented holes in the marriage from widening the way they did. We also should have sought counseling together sooner.
The last two months of my life have been a blur, mostly because of tears. Every day I feel I chase that monkey around the bush. However, now the chasing is productive. The pace is slowing. I’m not so emotionally exhausted. We have a mutual goal and respect for each other. We seek to follow the guidelines for productive conversations and we are taking action to find a resolution.
Sunshine note: This post was written pre-divorce decision. I have included it to document the shifting emotions and perspective in less than a 6-month time span.