My stomach is churning, palms sweaty. I try to not look. And then I make myself look so that I don’t feel so cowardly.
It is my dining room table. I’m talking to my wife.
We are talking civilly. It was impromptu. “We should really talk more often,” she said, “about the kids.”
She was leaving after dropping them off, ” Now’s good for me,” I said.
Our first civil conversation from beginning, middle to the end in months. No screaming, no recriminations, with several unanswered provocations, from both sides, left on the dining room table.
Between us, words have failed. And completely failed. Failure, in the same way an investigator would speak of a wing falling off a plane in flight — the bolts failed, the wing failed.
I never realized how fragile the framework of communication is until now, when I’ve experienced its collapse. Any communication relies on assumptions of intent for its structural integrity. The assumptions are so pervasive and essential they are assumed, forgotten and become, if not invisible, than subliminal. Like so many things we rely on — electricity, oxygen, the rule of law, whatever — you don’t notice it until its gone.
In all communication with the Leaver until this most recent tête–à-tête at our table it was clear that she assumed my intent was no longer benign but deeply hostile. And that changes everything.
Think about it. Most strangers you communicate with — at a store, at work, even the ones who show up unannounced at your front door with hope and a clipboard — if you assumed that they meant you harm upon first meeting, that everything they said was threatening and suspect how would that change everything you do and how you react?
I’ll tell you from experience; it’s bloody non-functional.
No meaning can be relied upon and initial impressions are fraught and mistrusted so communications fail. If the words are pleasant they can be tempting, if they are unsure they can be manipulative, if they are frustrated they can be furious, if they are sad they can be sarcastic, if they are self-deprecating than they can actually be triumphant. Or just throw the adjectives before and after the above “can be’s” into a hat and draw at random.
It doesn’t matter if the words are delivered through wires or through air across what used to be a shared dining room table. Taking away the emotion, smothering them in emotion, packing every statement within layers of prophylactic counter-arguments and apologies — all useless.
Because of this helplessness, in the midst of the dining room table negotiations, I had the almost irrepressible urge to hug her.
When words have failed how can communication recover? How does a plane recover when the wings fail? The word “catastrophic” comes to mind.
So a hug is not really an act of affection in this instant is more anarchy in the face of futility. A hopeless attempt at a giant reboot. Instead of going to Task Manager and carefully, controlled shutting down anything that’s frozen the system, just hold the damn on/off button for a minute and start all over again.
When I’m talking about reboot, I’m do not mean getting back together. No, not at all. It is easy in the loneliness to forget about the hell that brought you there, but I haven’t forgotten entirely.
But I would desperately like to get back to a moment way back in March. Where we sat in bed and wept. Realized it was over and there was some sort of idealism that we could do this breaking-up thing together and if not well (what the hell is “well” when you’re blowing up a 17 year relationship with two kids) then at least decently. You know that whole fidelity thing which is in the subheading of the blog? I want to get back to that sense of shared goal. Some sort of shared life, shared perspective, shared assumptions of intent. Benign intent.
I just get so frustrated. I’ve tried saying… well it usually turns into screaming… it’s me you’re talking to here. Remember the person you had children with? Surely I am still worthy of some sort of trust. I mean you no harm. What did I do? This panic, this anxiety, this lack of trust, it’s not just wrong — it’s ridiculous. It’s silly. It’s absurd.
Come on, let’s have a hug (kiss? little one? maybe?), make up and move on.
So did I cross the table, throw out my arms and say “come here, you crazy kid!”
I was too afraid and it was probably the right decision, unfortunately. I have to keep in mind that it’s not just words that have failed but all communication. A gesture — especially a grand one like that — can be just as easily misinterpreted: manipulation, pity, condescension — pick a confrontational adjective.
Before the dining room summit we’d had a period of silence. We functionally stopped speaking to each other entirely.
Now we have started speaking to each other, tentatively. With less trust than you’d find between two strangers who meet in a dark alley.
The assumptions of intent must be reconstructed all over again, carefully, painfully slowly. All the trust that we had built for 17 years is, if not destroyed, then buried beneath tonnes of rubble.
Back to the plane wing failure metaphor… Well its crashed after catastrophic failure. There is a pile of twisted metal. Maybe we can pull out two survivors and the flight recorder. Maybe we shouldn’t look at the flight recorder at all — who cares how we got here? Lets just take care of the survivors and get on with living.