In my family, there was no communication; there were a lot of feelings expressed, but they changed minute-to-minute and nothing was constant except what wasn’t being said. The secrets in the background, the incest, the bullying, gossiping, and complete lack of care and regard for one another was always present, and closely defined by the matriarch lording over all of it–my mother. She would often start sentences with “I don’t know why I have to say this…” as if communication was such an unpleasant chore and I should automatically be able to do what she wanted without words. Yet she simply overflowed with indirect communication, all of it hostile.
I often overheard my mother saying insulting things about me on the phone or to other family members; untrue stories, lies, mocking remarks. I wasn’t eavesdropping either; she didn’t make any attempt for her conversations to be private, she would speak loudly in the living room, on the deck; I would be minding my own business and then hear her saying these things. When she heard or saw me walking past, she would often start to share hateful gossip about me, and continue as long as she knew I could hear her. She knew I couldn’t resist hearing what she would say about me, and that she could put the blame on me for listening to her supposedly private conversations and being hurt. After I moved out, she wrote to me in a letter; “If I hurt you, I’m sorry, but it was unintentional.” I asked her which part of this scenario was NOT intentional, and was met with absolute silence.
But my mother liked to talk at me; both her and my father would simply say very loudly when I came into the room (or more often into an adjacent room) statements beginning with “I don’t know why…” “I’d like to know…” or “I hope…” and then they would become quiet, waiting for some answer. I most often shrugged it off; there was no respect for me in these random statements thrown out. But they didn’t really want me to say anything; if they did, they could have asked a direct question. They enjoyed my silence, they benefited from my tuning out; it gave them power. Meaningful and clear communication was not of any interest to them; ruling over me through indirect comments and criticisms, making me wind through deceptive labyrinths of insinuations was their goal.
Whenever I asked for something, I was inevitably shamed for it, made to feel like a problem, a hassle, often yelled at. Even if I got it, my mother would often exclaim “ooooffff cooourrrseee!” as if to imply that I was so stupid for even needing to ask. They couldn’t ever just say yes or no and leave shaming and exaggeration out of it. If I went to them with a problem, I was absolutely blamed for it, and for bothering them on top of it. This had the effect of silencing me, to the extent that I simply went without, and was filled with so much anxiety that I arranged my entire life for so many years around the requirement of getting my needs met without having to approach anyone else, in person or on the phone.
My father preferred to communicate in leading, condescending questions meant to force me into proving his point for him. He became enraged when I refused to answer him and thereby willingly surrender myself into his box. For my older sister, she tended to, instead of saying what her concerns were (I don’t think you should do this because…), create an abstract, contrived speech about wider and unspecific subjects that often caused a pointless argument. I resented this moralizing of hers so much, and cannot stand it when other people put up this pretense today. I’m not a fan of dialectics, I don’t enjoy rhetorical arguments for their own sake, when some things could be communicated in a few simple sentences. I’d prefer people just honestly tell me what their concerns are and then let me think about it and decide what to do in my own time.
My mother said she liked my cooking, and liked it when I made things for her. Sometimes I would ask her if she wanted something; she would say yes, and then gradually it would begin; she would start to hem and haw, discourage me in subtle ways, question every little thing that went into the dish, put down every process involved in hopes to stop me. She would go on and on beating me down, and then conclude with ‘forget I said anything…’ portraying her as the victim. But she would never just say ‘I changed my mind, I don’t want it.’ She never wanted it in the first place, but she refused to just say no thanks. After eating it she would tell me obvious lies, first saying it was ‘good’ and then later claiming that she had had an allergic reaction when she hadn’t. She wouldn’t just say ‘I didn’t like it.’ So I was left hanging in this netherworld of hints, lies, double-meanings and manipulations.
What is ‘indirect communication’ ultimately? It isn’t really polite or kind, because you’re relying on sending out signals which another person may not pick up on. It’s much closer to harassment as I see it–passive aggressive behavior designed to hide the fact that you’re trying to subtly manipulate someone else into doing what you want them to do. Inevitably, the end of it almost always turns into emotional abuse–the part where the indirect communicator blows up, and finally lets out what they really wanted in a violent outburst. Being honest and forthright doesn’t have to descend into verbal abuse, it doesn’t have to be as harsh and upsetting as possible. Just being direct, clear, and open at the outset means feelings aren’t repressed and left to build up and seethe into something ugly.
I could not and still do not understand this form of communication. Back then, I learned to simply ignore it, filter it out–it was antagonistic nonsense, obfuscated and often deceptive. When it involves food, it is built up out of old traditions of poisonous communication involving obligations to ‘clean your plate,’ provide empty praise to someone for having ‘made a meal,’ lie that it was good, eat it even if you aren’t hungry, etc. Of course, people don’t need to be mean about food–yet again, you can nonviolently communicate that you didn’t like something, don’t want it, don’t want anymore, etc. These outdated, oppressive morals about food are sometimes ascribed to ‘culture’ but I see it as ultimately stemming from childhood where children’s natural instincts about food are manipulated and perverted by abusive parenting.
During the last year I lived with them, I attempted to stand up to this process of my parents. I tried to get them to tell me what it is they really meant, to which they yelled at me even more, my mother proclaiming that “there are no hidden meanings!” But there were, my parents still asked me roundabout questions and used my answers to decide unrelated matters. The simple request to explain themselves without putting up elaborate facades was too much. Ludicrously, they shouted at me “we don’t like the way you talk to us!” when I wouldn’t play their games anymore. Today, I don’t talk to them at all, and I strive for clear and open communication in all of my relationships, which inevitably involves both me and them actively trying to move past the old patterns and connect in a healthy way. But it is worth it.