“Listen when you hear.”

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April 10, 2008 by 8junebugs

<<armor off>>

I used to hear this a lot (ironic as that may seem) from someone who knew me inside out, upside down, and backwards. It’s been more than seven years since I last heard it, but it rings in my head with other potent pleas for better living:

“Stand up straight.”
“Do unto others as you would have done to you.”
“Eat your peas and carrots.”

As well as that person knew me and as much as I respected his opinion and (usually) counsel, there’s some direction that just never seems to sink in with me. Had I listened, plenty of emotional disasters might have been averted.

It’s not unusual to have “selective hearing” — we’re all guilty of it from time to time, and it starts when we’re kids. “What? Oh, I thought you said ‘Go stomp in the puddle,’ not ‘Don’t stomp in the puddle.’ Sorry!” But the stakes get higher as we get older and selective hearing blends with fears, insecurities, and family patterns in a Conflict Cocktail. (Note: Adding other cocktails is counterproductive.)

In my family, if you love someone, you pick on them. That’s just how it’s always been, and the first to pout usually got picked up and dipped ass-first in my grandmother’s perpetually full dishpan. (I’m not exaggerating for effect on this one. It only stopped when the dippees got bigger and the dipper turned 40.) Love and meanness come at you in roughly the same package, which made it easy to let people off the hook for bad behavior and be shocked when someone came out and said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but sometimes I really hate you.”

Either way, it created a defensive atmosphere that was portrayed as normal. You were always on your guard. It seems quite obviously rotten from 20 years and a couple hundred miles away, but there it is.

If you’re used to being on the defensive, especially with those you love and trust, you’re bound to create combative situations where they just don’t belong. Midweek dinner plans, for example.

Excerpt, paraphrased
Him: What do you want to do for dinner?
You: My stomach hurts, maybe sandwiches? What are your thoughts?
Him: I’d been thinking about going out — do you think X restaurant would be okay on your stomach?
You: Meh.
Him: Well, it’s your call — you’re the one with the upset stomach.
You: Stop pushing! I already said sandwiches! Oh, let’s just go to X restaurant, I don’t care.
Him: Are you sure? Will that be okay for your stomach?
You: No, but whatever. <<pout>>

Yeah. I’m a real peach. The unripe kind that have the super-soft fuzz on the outside but are completely unyielding to even the sharpest knife and will not let go of the goddam pit.

You should see me when it’s about something even remotely important. I used to think my argumentative side came from my dad’s family, but time and distance gave me a little perspective. Not that I’ve used it. The same person who asked me to listen when I heard also took me to task for picking fights.

Me? Really? No…couldn’t be. Why would I do that? I hated our fights. I hate most fights. But I’m stubborn enough to stand fast until I melt into a puddle of confusion and self-loathing.

Being raised on the defensive set my selective hearing dial to “listen for the jabs so you can be sure you’re ready to fight back.” Traumatic events just keep the dial moving in the wrong direction — the volume goes up not only on legitimate jabs, but also on anything that could possibly be taken (out of context, if necessary) as mean or insensitive. The rest of the conversation dissolves in static and I fly off the handle about something I’ve decided means something else.

I may have decided it means something else because the parents who were supposed to protect and teach me lied their bloody heads off at some pretty critical moments. One is significantly worse than the other, but the point is that nothing was certain except disappointment. I’ve carried that expectation with me for 30+ years and applied it to unsuspecting individuals who had the poor judgment to fall in love with me when I let my guard down.

I’m sorry, guys. Really. I promise I was unaware of it until at least 1998, when I distinctly remember making a list in my head against some poor bastard who was just trying to help.

But that was 10 years ago and nothing has changed. It’s cost me at least two and a half relationships since then, relationships with wonderful guys who didn’t know what hit them. I don’t seem to do this to friends and colleagues — them, I take at their word, even if they’re really, really close to me. But they’ll never be as close as a lover, so the stakes have a limit. Doesn’t seem fair that the more you love me, the less likely I am to trust you, does it? I’ll hear you, but I haven’t yet figured out how to listen through a lifetime of static.

It’s poor form to end without a solution or a punchline, but such is life.

<<armor on>>

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