Miscommunication and mixed messages

It is not easy when relationships hit a rough patch. This is especially true in retirement because you spend so much more time together.

When you’re employed and have a disagreement with your spouse or significant other, time at work can divert your attention from the disagreement and de-escalate the situation. But when you’re retired, you may not be able to resolve the situation so easily.

Recently, my husband, Chris, and I went through a period where our normally easy going conversations were anything but. It was as if we were speaking different languages and had no one to translate. I threw up my hands in exasperation more than once during this frustrating and stressful time. What was going on and what could I do about it?

Our communication difficulties were caused by differing ways of speaking and listening. Chris would ask me a question in a way that pushed my buttons. “Where is the (fill in the blank)?” he would ask. I thought his question implied that should know where the missing item was located. If he had added the phrase “Do you know” to the “Where is the (fill in the blank)?” I probably would not have reacted.

The emotional button Chris pushed was me believing he expected me to know where the missing item was. A simple “I don’t know” from me would have ended the conversation. Yet, I launcheCd into my defense “Why should I know where everything in the house is?” and the argument was off and running. .

Chris also asks rhetorical questions and I think they are real ones. Rhetorical questions are asked without expecting an answer. My logic is this: if you don’t expect an answer, don’t ask the question!

But the mystery as to why we were having communication issues remained. Both Chris and I are experiencing a lot of stress these days. I’m about to launch a retirement readiness webinar and Chris is evaluating his next moves in retirement. When under stress, we both become controlling. That simply doesn’t work in a relationship.

How could we improve our communications in spite of the stress we were experiencing? It wasn’t easy, but we did it. Here’s how:

Be clear about what you want

Expecting your partner to read your mind and know what you need is unrealistic. I am highly anticipatory. I constantly think about what has to happen next and what might be needed. My husband does not function this way. Part of my frustration came from Chris not seeing what needed to be done and doing it. He isn’t lazy. He truly doesn’t see what needs to be done next. (I can almost see a sea of female heads bobbing in agreement.) When I stopped thinking he should know what to do and started asking for his help, much of my frustration disappeared.

Find an alternate way to fill your needs

Chris needs time to evaluate his continuing retirement options. I need time to focus on launching my webinar. So who picks up the slack? Neither of us. I realized that Chris’s focus is as important to him as mine is to me. Rather than fight over who is going to clean the house, I hired someone to come in and do it.

Beware of the “stack attack”

Not communicating small grievances and resolving them quickly allows them to fester. Allow those grievances to pile up and you can be the victim of a “stack attack.” These small issues may not be easily recognizable or articulated. However, an exaggerated emotional response is the hallmark of a stack attack.

Count to 10, 50, 100 or 1,000

My mother told me to count to 10 before responding in anger to a situation. Sometimes I need to count to a thousand. Allowing anger to get the best of you is never a good idea. My husband Chris used to get incensed when I would storm out of a room until one day I shouted, “If I don’t leave the room, I know I will say things I will regret and can’t take back.” Take a breath. Clear your head. Think it through.

Take time to make sure you understand

When you’re in the middle of an argument it is not easy to shift into active listening and feed back to your partner what you’re hearing and understanding. Yet, that is one of the fastest ways to end conflict. Truly listening and letting someone say their piece before jumping in with the perfect comeback is the ultimate sign of wisdom and maturity. Isn’t that what being older and wiser it is all about?

Kathryn Avery

About Kathryn Avery

When Kathryn Severns Avery’s husband, Chris, began contemplating retirement in 2014, she knew they had to quickly come up with a multi-faceted plan. They spent the next year discussing, sometimes heatedly, what they would do once he stopped working. On paper their plan looked exciting. They would head from Colorado to the 1891 sea captain’s house they bought and renovated in Rockland on Maine’s midcoast. But the reality of planning and implementing retirement was much different than expected. Kathryn has worked in radio, television, marketing, and public relations. She is the author of five books and has written articles on interior design and crafts for national and regional publications including Romantic Homes, Log Homes Illustrated, The Rocky Mountain News and Colorado Homes and Lifestyles.