Meeting in the Middle: Expressing Feelings in Words vs. Silence

By Adam J. Pearson

Tonight, I had a total bombardment of mind-blowing epiphanies. I was talking with my girlfriend, Lori, for 2 hours and she said some things that blew my mind. All my life, I have expressed emotions and love through words. Every girl I ever dated was the verbal, expressive type. And so, I came to associate a romantic connection with constant verbal expressing, praising, and adoring. It never occurred to me either that (1) one could be secure in the knowledge that the connection was there without constantly verbalizing it or that (2) other people did not relate to their feelings the same way, through words.

I felt like Lori wasn’t being very romantic with me and that I couldn’t know how she felt because she didn’t tell me. I felt like my need for verbal validation wasn’t being met. What I found out, though, is that unlike me, she was not raised to show love through words. She was raised to show love through actions and humour. I was raised to constantly say how I felt as a way of proving it. She was raised to silently know that the caring was there without having to say it.

Lori was never into love poetry; she saw it as corny and insincere, if not sometimes manipulative. So, when I would express my sincere feelings to her in poetic language, I would feel like I was showing her I cared. She, in total distinction to what I thought, would feel like I was being insincere, just spouting words. She would feel awkward and pressured to say something similar back, a practice which to her, felt totally unnatural. It caused her anxiety.

When I would send her messages thanking her for a good time I had with her and pointing out things I liked that she did, I would see it as building the relationship and communicating openly. She would see it as me giving her a report card and setting a standard for her to live up to. Basically, she would see it once again, as pressure, when I intended the opposite, not to place burdens on her, but to lift them off. I tried to use words to reassure her; she tried to tell me that she didn’t need words to be reassured.

I have always related to my emotions through verbal interpretation. She has always related to them through a nonverbal mode. It blew my mind to hear how she was receiving my messages in a totally opposite way to what I intended and how we actually related to her feelings through totally different modes of experience and perception. It had never even occurred to me that her way of relating to feelings was even possible. Not express my feelings in words? Just silently feel them? Whaaat?

She asked if I thought this difference in our modes of showing we care would be a problem for us, maybe even mean that we couldn’t be together. I wondered that myself at first, very briefly. Then I realized that it wasn’t a lack we were seeing in each other, but a possibility for growth. She was showing me how to feel more without needing to rely so much on expressing what I’m feeling in words. And I was showing her that she can explore feelings in words in ways that can be profound. So, I have resolved to tell her LESS of what I am feeling for her, basically, to shut up more. And she has resolved to try to be more open about what she feels for me in words. I told her that if I continue to tell her she is beautiful and such, or feel inspired to be poetic with her, she doesn’t have to respond with anything more than than an “aww,” a “thank you,” or just a heart or a smile.

When I was a kid, my parents would always say “I love you” to me and it was so natural. If I wasn’t told, I would feel like they didn’t feel it. I needed verbal validation. Lori’s experience growing up was the total opposite. She narrated a story to me to reinforce the difference in her experience. She said that “when I was maybe 17 I asked my dad “do you love me?” in a non-serious way, and he said “love is a strong word, I tolerate you.” I thought that was the most hilarious thing ever and we just laughed and told my mom and she laughed, and this brought us so close together and it made me feel warm. I guess it’s just so obvious and such a known thing that he does love me, we get along great, and that what he said was a joke and got us to laugh, rather than an awkward “yes, I love you”. Not that saying that is always wrong; obviously genuine moments are needed too… but my family connects through humour and I guess just a sense of knowing…”

This was so revealing to me. It opened up a whole new field of experience to explore, the way of feeling without saying. Lori never practiced Zen formally, but she gets one feature of its teachings very intuitively, namely expressing truth or feeling without words. She says she learned this way from all the animals she cared for at the SPCA, where she often volunteered. She likes how animals are silently authentic and feel without words. I feel I have a lot to learn from her and her way of feeling.

After this conversation, we both felt like a burden had been lifted off of us, like things murky between us had suddenly become transparent. I feel like we can both relax into the relationship a little more and that we have deepened our communication with one another. After this revelation, we went on to discuss other key things. I found out about her jealousy when I’m with her and other girls are around. I tried to reassure her that my heart is set on her, but that if it made her feel better, if she was feeling jealous, she could just grab me and kiss me or hold my hand. She could ‘mark her territory’ in this way. And she said that her natural instinct was the opposite in such moments, not to hold on, but to pull away and be distant.

And this is yet another fundamental difference between us. When someone I care about seems to be pulling away from me, I tend to hold on harder. She does the opposite; she pulls away harder. What we realized is that both of these tendencies are unhealthy. They actually make us both feel less safe in the relationship and less secure. She feels less safe because she feels I’m clinging to her. I feel less safe because I’m afraid she’ll run and drop my heart. So, this is something else we both need to work on.

The final thing we realized is that we had opposite conceptions of the meaning of poetry and this difference resulted in us misunderstanding each other. Lori told me that she always suspected poetry to be insincere and inadequate for expressing the depth of human feeling. She distrusted poets, many of whom she thought were just trying to smooth-talk people in order to manipulate them, or told the same words to many people rather than have them mean something authentic to one beloved.

She said that “I just always considered the poetic Casanova types less down to earth and therefore, less trustworthy, but not in a malicious way, more like in a “they’re up in the clouds more entrenched in their own imagination, and in love more with an idea of love,” rather than just really seeing the person and the moment. Talking to.you I realize that my interpretation was wrong, that some people do genuinely express themselves in that way.”

In my worldview, Lori’s description applies to fake poets and bad poetry. Real poetry for me, is not a description of an experience; it is an experience itself. It is life sprouting into words. In my reality tunnel, good poetry is grounded in real life. It’s in the earth of the forest and the tears of single mothers and the usually silent struggles that everyone faces every day. That’s what gives it power to me, the fact that it is real. And when I write poetic things to Lori, they are concrete expressions of what I’m actually feeling, like tears or laughter. They are just as primal and immediate as feelings for me, though they are constructed and distant for her. Lori’s fake poets may try to impress, but real poets try to express. From what I shared, Lori learned about the potential power of poetry. From what Lori shared, I was reminded of poetry’s limitations.

Before tonight, I never realized how in tune with the Zen spirit and inwardly grounded Lori was. I was a natural introvert who forced myself to become an extrovert; she was a natural extrovert who was forced into introversion. Our new goal is to meet in the middle and validate each other’s modes of experience and ‘love languages.’ I am excited about the path that lies ahead of us, a path of playful experimentation, new experiences, and deepening openness. It is my sense that we can not only grow inwardly (subjectively), but also towards each other (intersubjectively) and that sometimes, we can grow in both directions at once.

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