By the good fortune of technology, we can enjoy Abbot and Costello’s famous routine, “Who’s on first. What’s on second, and I-Don’t-Know is on third.” Those guys are still funny today.

It’s just not so funny when you’re married to someone who is sending mixed messages. In fact, it’s downright frustrating. But that may be exactly the point. Let me explain with a story.

“Be honest with me,” Mary Lou pleaded with Lou. “Did I do something wrong?”

“Oh, no,” Lloyd answered, trying to sound reassuring. Inside, however, he felt as though he were walking on a tightrope. Past experience told him that he was now being carefully placed in a lose-lose situation. His guard was up, but he didn’t know what to do. The bombshell fell right away and although it was expected, it still jarred him as it always did. His stomach muscles tightened, his breath quickened, his palms perspired.

“See, that’s why I don’t trust you,” Mary Lou, his wife of 20 years, said. “I don’t believe you are being honest. And you’ve done this before. I can’t ever get into a real conversation with you. You run away from it so fast. You hide. You won’t talk about what’s really happening. You are just not in reality!” Mary Lou said and then continued on for a few minutes more until Lloyd felt almost faint. Not only was he confused as to how to respond, but he was clearly being attacked. He wanted to lash out.

“I am not hiding!” Lloyd said, making his first mistake.

“Yes, you are,” insisted Mary Lou. “When Marjorie came to visit on Christmas and she was drunk as a skunk, what, exactly did you do? Nothing. But she is your sister, not mine. Shouldn’t you have done something about it? That’s what I mean by running away.”

Lloyd could feel the anger rising. He had started out trying to soothe his wife. He knew, beyond a doubt, that had he been honest the way she had requested at the beginning of the conversation, the result would have been even worse. It would have gone something like this:

“Be honest with me,” Mary Lou pleaded with Lou. “Did I do something wrong?”

“I want to put this carefully, Mary Lou, so we won’t fight about it. But you did do something wrong. My sister, Marjorie, is furious with how you spoke to her on Christmas.  She is telling everyone what you said, and frankly, since you asked for honesty, you have alienated and antagonized everyone. I don’t know how to get us out of it now.”

“What?” Mary Lou would respond. “You’re bringing that up! What could I have done? She was the one who was attacking me and you just stood by and didn’t say anything. And now you’re telling me that I did something wrong? I can’t believe this. My own husband gives me a verbal punch in the gut whenever he can.” (She starts to cry.)

Do you get the picture? From the moment the conversation begins, Lloyd cannot win. Mary Lou is sending two opposite messages. That’s why they’re called mixed messages. She does not want, absolutely, positively, does not want an honest response. She says she does, but she doesn’t. What’s more, when she gets either response, she uses it as a jumping off point to throw some blame back at Lloyd. She will never actually evaluate her own actions. It is altogether possible that Lloyd’s sister, Marjorie, did the exact same thing to Mary Lou. It is quite possible that Mary Lou also was put in a lose-lose position. Even so, if she requested feedback, it is incumbent upon her to examine herself and her actions closely. Otherwise, why else did she ask for feedback?

Moreover, her own dilemmas don’t give her the right to (a) request things she really does not want to hear; (b) change the subject and toss miscellaneous blame back at the person from whom she has requested feedback; and (c) accuse the person to whom she was requesting feedback of hurting her when that is the very feedback she was asking for.

What should Lloyd do about it? How can he handle it? And why did I say that he was making his first mistake when he said, “I am not hiding!”?

Stay tuned for the next post.

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