The Argument Before the Argument

Words are vehicles for transmitting bits of yourself into someone else.  I bet you can think of something nice that someone said to you ten years ago.  I bet you know that person’s name, maybe what they were wearing at the time, and what their face looks like.  Similarly, I’m pretty sure you can look back ten years and see someone who said something hurtful to you.  Words are immortality, in a way, because so long as someone remembers our words, we live on.

Yes, so many of our words are throw-aways.  We talk about nothing and everything.  We talk to keep the air full of something.  We talk to remember that we exist.  And it isn’t always possible to know which words are going to be kept and which ones will vanish.  Not every conversation is a keeper.

But those conversations that are intended to be kept, the ones that make or break friendships, or love.  I want to talk about the words that we use in those.

Over the past week, I’ve talked to a couple of people contemplating serious conversations with people they love over the state of a relationship.  The pre-conversation conversation starts with “can I say this?” and then something comes out that I know has been considered and edited and rearranged for days, if not weeks, if not years.

And always, these things that we want to say are a hand extended by reaching around the shield.  Comments that give and take in the same breath.  Designed to hedge the bet about how the other guy is going to react, or to manipulate the other side of the conversation.  Part posturing, part supplication.  We’ve all done it, we’ve all been on the receiving end of it.  And it is maddening.

With one friend, we started out with “why do you hate me” and ended up with what she really wanted to say, which was “can we try this again?”  “Why do you hate me” is easier to say.  It is less vulnerable.  There isn’t the possibility of a “no” at the end of it.  It is demanding rather than giving, it seeks an outcome rather than saying what it is.  There’s not much by way of honesty in it, unless you count the honest desire for engagement behind it.  “Can we try this again” is straightforward.  It opens you up for a clear, clean “no.”  It is vulnerable.  It admits a wanting for something that you might not be able to have.  But it is also distinctly lacking in coercion, manipulation, passive-aggressiveness, or attempts to control the outcome.  It’s terrifying.  It’s impossibly vulnerable for someone who has been hurt – and we’ve all been hurt.

I saw some back and forth over text from another friend.  “I know you’ve moved on…” one party said.  Well, did they know that?  Or was that a defense mechanism and a backhanded way to ask “have you moved on?”  And the conversation disintegrated from there until no one knew what the other guy was saying because the words that were being used hadn’t been born clean.  The words were stuck trying to carry too much that was at odds with itself.

We all plan these conversations.  We argue before we argue, working out strategy about how we’re going to play the different aspects of our position, using our real pain in manipulative ways to orchestrate the empathy in our favor. It isn’t like you aren’t thinking about how to have that conversation already.

Unfortunately, the reality is that it is going to hurt either way you go about it.  All of your fancy words and making the meaning double up on itself until no one can tell which is sincere and which is sarcastic; even your manipulations, trying to nudge things in your favor, even that is going to hurt.  Negotiating relationships hurts.  Full stop.  It’s scary.  And there is no way to protect yourself from the terror, at least not if you want an authentic connection.

From a writer.  As a writer.  As someone who thinks about using words well all the damn time.  Really.  All the damn time.  Play that conversation out.  With every iteration, push your words closer to simplicity and closer to the naked truth until you can get to the plainest words there are.  Words that don’t try to shape the other person’s answer.  Just the words.  Remember: this is someone you love.  This is someone you believe you need in your life.  This is someone who makes everything better when they’re in the room.  They fart sunshine and shit glitter.  You can’t stop thinking about them.  It’s been years and you’re still missing them.  They’re still all you can see.  The first thing on your mind in the morning; the falling asleep breath on your pillow holds their name.  Start with the truth, and let the truth set you free.

I miss you.  I love you.  I want you to be happy, and I want to be a part of your happy. What can I do to make that happen?

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The Argument Before the Argument

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