The Fine and Messy Art of Listening

“Thank you for a discussion or confab with little or no hackled shoulders. That was the pleasant part about it.”

I lost track of how long my partner had been talking. Most of my responses came in the form of “Okay,” “Mm hm,” or their many cognates, or just enough reflecting back to let her know I still heard what she was saying.

At some point I finally said, “I’m starting to get a little information overload here. I wonder if we could table some of this for later.”

She said, “We’re almost through all of it.”


She was back later. And back again. And again. When I corrected a small detail about the chronology of some events, she thanked me for not getting all on her case about it. By that time, I felt my voice had become so small that I was barely audible.

There comes a point where, for me, the words don’t matter any more. There’s nothing I can really do about them except listen as my partner puzzles things out.

She’s still obsessed with her idea of promiscuous older women with MS, “as reported 30 years ago.” She’s sure she has an article about that somewhere. She’s still looking for it.

She’s been looking for it for almost a week now. As her obsessions go, this is just the revving-up phase.

This “article” is not the same as the MS book whose link she had sent me, mentioned in this entry — the one with the 11-line paragraph saying hypersexuality is “relatively rare” and happens more in men than in women.

I brought up the paragraph again. This time I said it focused more on men (“The spouse (usually the wife) is pursued incessantly…”).

My partner’s counter-argument boiled down to:

1. That book was published in 2002, not 30 years ago. Viagra was available, so of course men would be affected more; and
2. Adolescent boys reading the book would ignore the part about the men and focus only on pursuing women, whom they think are now hypersexualized.

My internal voice: Okay, that was worth giving it a shot. No dice. Move on.

Add in her umptee-bazillionth rehash of everything from The Mystery of The Undelivered Newspapers (I think that was three years ago) to The Stalker Guy With “Cougar” On His Truck (I think he waved at her once, and I don’t think he’s a stalker, just someone who lives in the neighborhood).

In other words, come hell or high water, she will focus on whatever she needs to believe (or whatever pattern her brain insists on), regardless of content. It’s not really about the words. My take: It’s about how vulnerable she feels, especially given her current diagnosis. Childhood sexual abuse is part of my partner’s history, hence the sexual focus.

Why look for a purported article from 30 years ago? She’d been hospitalized then, and given Haldol (which she views as the cause of her MS). As soon as she’d been discharged from the hospital, she had “run away” from it as fast as she could. And she had run away from any intimation of MS, which had been suggested at one point and then had been ruled out in favor of “probable viral encephalitis.”

My partner said, “They didn’t want to call it MS because they wanted me to have a better chance of getting a job.”

“Okay.” Whatever.

Somewhere in our “conversation” my partner detoured into talking about the way adolescent boys’ voices change, and how they are picked on during that time. I commented that adolescence is a very embarrassing time, especially if one’s voice doesn’t stay in one place.

During these types of discussions, I have learned to be somewhat rude to preserve my sanity. I face my partner if I know she wants to see my emotional response. But if she’s theorizing and obsessing, I often do things like skim news headlines on the computer, to see what I want to read when things finally get quiet (Ooh, a new dinosaur’s been discovered!). It helps control the little voice in me that goes like this:

Or like this:

(Hint: My internal voice is the one on the left.)

I’ve had to learn this “rudeness.” I was raised to give my full attention to a speaker and to look them in the eye when they spoke. (One boy in high school was very threatened by this. I had never cultivated the feminine “eyes downcast” look. What some people interpreted as defiance, I’d been taught was a sign of politeness: “Hey! Look at me when I’m talking to you.” So I’d look, calmly and intently, waiting. It weirded the poor guy out, every single time. But I digress…)

Sometimes I just try to get meditative, as in this “meditation in a moment” video. Sometimes I literally close my eyes and focus on my own deep breathing, and I let her words float over me like clouds. I turn to this method during times of what seem to me incessant interruptions and repetitions — especially if I’ve been trying to concentrate on something else.

I’d love to say I just live in the moment and get very Zen about it all, every time. But on bad days I just shred my cuticles. My partner doesn’t seem to notice when I do that, so I suspect my headline-skimming doesn’t register too strongly with her. She’s much more attuned to my tone of voice and my overall body language. She used to have a lot of trouble with what she calls my “teacher voice.” I also have to be mindful not to place my hands on my hips when she’s talking, and she gets nervous if my head is above hers.

I try to be a small, quiet center. I let her spin her theories until she is talked out, listening enough to see if there is a moment when anything I say might do some good. Otherwise, I’ve learned not to add fuel to her fire.

Meanwhile, what’s important to her is that I’m listening in a non-judgmental manner. So, too, the hugs I give her, which are important to me also. And then we laugh about something silly — or we explore some of those article links together, like this one about storytelling to a young son. My partner especially laughed at Russell Smith’s line, “Trying to tell an exciting tale about Granny in the park without the faintest sense of menace (no rabbit holes, or there will be screaming) is like trying to do one of those pointless literary magazine contests in which you must use the words avocado and jurisprudence.”

Dividing my attention like this is not the way I was raised to have a conversation. But then again, neither was chatting about horny marauding small-town teens armed with a working knowledge of MS-crazed libido based on 30-year-old medical monographs passed down from Granny (to follow my partner’s line of reasoning).

My partner’s history of abuse also played into a recent discussion we had about family involvement (or the lack thereof). The issue had been bothering me on several levels. I have no communication with my own relatives, due in part to my own history of abuse. (One notable exception, now deceased, is a whole other story.) As immediate family goes, I’m the last of my line.

My partner’s family situation is more complex. On rare occasion I’ve been in touch with one sibling in particular, someone my partner trusts and who knows of our situation. My impression is that other relatives (including some Facebook contacts) have no idea what my partner’s condition or diagnosis is. As a caregiver, I keep a low profile there for that reason.

Personally, I’d like to see more involvement, particularly from trusted individuals. But it’s not my family, and it’s not my decision. So — after turning off the A/C (which my partner wants done when we have discussions with emotional content) — I approached her with the question.

I emphasized that I would follow her lead. If she wanted no contact, I was good with that. If she wanted me to pass on any information or otherwise facilitate contact, I would be happy to do so. Over the years, I’ve told her that if she ever wanted to call anyone, she should feel free to pick up the phone (she expresses concern about making a long-distance call). Sometimes she’s taken me up on it, but over the years we’ve been together I’ve watched family contact and involvement drop precipitously, with less outreach on both our end and theirs.

I also know that part of that has a lot to do with my partner’s emotional healing, so I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.

During our discussion she looked much more comfortable on the surface than I felt. But I feel relieved, now that I know what her wishes are, and I can move forward from my own “should I or shouldn’t I?” phase. For now, there’s some limited information that she’s told me I can pass along. After I finish drafting an email, she’ll review it and dictate to me the text she wants to add.

Does the discussion about family communication relate at all to her current obsession? I’m not sure. Her obsession had come first. The communication discussion was for my own peace of mind, and I’m glad we had it. She was glad I checked in with her and showed my concern.

For now, that works for me.

Internal meditation space: I took this shot in 2006 at Rainbow Springs State Park and have an enlarged print of it on my studio door.

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4 Comments on "The Fine and Messy Art of Listening"

Profile photo of Denise
May 31, 2012

EJ! First!! The first video is of Kim of The Housewives of Atlanta and Tardy for the Wedding (on tonight!!). Or, did you know this already? :)

Well, you are doing wonders. Small steps but oh, are they great small steps. Your partner’s calmness during what could be emotionally-charged discussions (family, ugh) speaks so much of your success.

When these kinds of conversations end, how do you recharge?

I love the meditation space. I’m already quiet.

Jun 7, 2012

EJ, I’m glad I came back to this when I had a few minutes to digest it. You are quite amazing. I’m even more happy you found after reading about the lack of family involvement and the isoloation that comes with that. I don’t think I could do what you do and keep my sanity. I had to set very strict boundaries with my dad (although he ignored them) because he would discuss inappropriate content with me (as his daughter, I didn’t need to hear about his Viagra and exploits and obsessions with 20-year-olds).

I was Anderson Cooper plenty of times! :-)

The only way I could make sure the boundaries were enforced was to distance myself from him (physically – take a break from phone, visits, etc.). I really am in awe of you that you can distance yourself from your partner to protect yourself yet still be close to her. That’s quite a gift you give to her and yourself.

Now, I need a meditation space like in your photo in my backyard! Haha!

Thank you for letting us peek into your world. I really do learn so much from you.