Talking Things Over

I’m trying to make a difficult decision, lying awake for hours at night. But as I share my concern with close friends, some calm begins to return.

Long ago this became my way of coping when troubles arose, but it calls for a measure of self-disclosure, a sharing of vulnerabilities, which  I know is hard for some.

A while ago an old friend began phoning more often than usual. Her son was divorcing, and her distress about the breakup of his family had brought her low. She had been my frequent talking partner when angst was in my life, so now it was my turn to listen.

My husband and I had lived through a similar time, when a child’s divorce became part of the air we breathed, often the last thing we talked about at night and the first upon waking. But when I say we talked about it, that’s not quite true. I talked, he listened. For longer conversations, I turned to my friend.

One evening, overhearing us on the phone, Len gently berated me, urging me to think and talk less about the plight of our loved ones. He saw it as a way of quieting my concerns. I did not argue with him but simply ignored his advice, as he knew I would.

Len grew up in a home where feelings, even if recognized, were not talked about. In my childhood home, emotion was welcome grist for the mill. Not surprisingly, we both grew up having adopted the ways we learned as children. He was able to put troubles out of mind and metaphorically go fishing. Not me.

We knew this about each other. Over time, and with deliberate effort, talk came more easily for us, but we also learned to honor our differences. I probed less to unearth the feelings behind his moods, and he sought less to divert or dampen my need to talk when I was upset. When we were not in sync for conversation, a comforting touch or a loving embrace allowed us to communicate without words. Today my friends, those who talk and those who mostly listen, fill the void.

A colleague, who is also a close friend listens well, offering comfort when things go amiss in my life or when I’m faced with a challenging decision. She has suffered major losses and faced difficult choices, but she rarely discloses her most personal thoughts. Although I know she trusts me, she keeps her feelings hidden beneath an exterior of cheerful banter. She willingly talks of her professional life and the problems she is working to solve for her clients, but when her friends inquire about her well-being, she just gives a few reassuring words, then artfully changes the subject. Efforts to thwart this move inevitably fail.

I find this worrisome. Did her family meet distress with silence, and she now follows the avoidance pattern of her early years? I try to respect the line she has drawn. But I’m sad for her and wonder when a self-imposed barrier becomes a cage, even a prison.

Does our personal past inform our professional present? Lawyers, by the very nature of their work, hear from clients when they are most vulnerable. They usually respect personal boundaries, appropriately so. But over the years I’ve grown less guarded. On occasion I step cautiously into that protected space of professional reserve and share with a client a story of a similar experience to theirs, or one from which I learned something important. Lightning does not strike. My status is not compromised. A sweet connection is made.

For years I’ve kept a wonderful Edward Koren cartoon on my desk. It shows two couples enjoying a companionable evening in the living room of one of them. Behind the host couple, who are seated on their couch, stands a huge hairy monster. “We deal with it by talking about it” reads the caption.

I do too, and I count myself lucky to know others for whom demons are diminished by talk, even if sometimes they just listen.



21 thoughts on “Talking Things Over

  1. Hi Bea,

    Poignant observations. My daughter has just reached a settlement with the bad-ex two years after the decree issued brought about by hiring a new lawyer that I spotted on the web. I send her your thoughtful posts which she appreciates as do I.

    P.S. Men don’t know how to palaver once married because they didn’t learn how to in the home/school.


    Lewis Gatch

    Gatch Law Office
    8050 Hosbrook Rd., Suite 102
    Cincinnati, OH 45236
    (513) 984-3587

  2. I only heard my mother cry once. About the time Mary Johnston was born, we were living at the house we occupied when I went into the navy (1958). She was sobbing in the kitchen with Dad trying to comfort her. I was terrified and felt helpless. I have those same feelings today. In my mother’s case, she was apparently not known to cry. The one tale I remember was when she was living with her foster family in Sioux City. Her brother Clare found out where she was and set out to visit her. Mom said she saw Clare at the door and he was turned away by the Hills family. Mom asked why they hadn’t let him in. Their reply was because they thought she would cry. Maybe a hint?

    Sent from my iPhone

    1. Dear brother-in-law,
      I am so grateful for all that I’ve learned about Len’s past from you sharing your recollections. It’s revealing and rewarding to hear these stories. Love to you and Judy, Bea

  3. Bea,

    The question you raise in this piece has haunted me for years. When does one probe, even gently, and when does one let slide some apparent pain or distress that another seems to be experiencing in silence. One problem for me is the tendency to assume that the upset has been caused by me (my narcissism rearing its head) and I want to correct things or apologize more out of my own needs than the other person’s. With Sherry, I’m now more inclined to simply ask, “Are you okay?” And yet, there are times when it seems best to just wait and let the other person decide when to broach what’s bothering him/her.

    Your writing, as always, is thought-provoking. Bob


    1. Thanks, Bob. A thoughtful question. If it worked, I would probe, but with those determined to remain hidden, I rarely succeed. But, I Have given up the burden of thinking it’s my fault. Sometimes I’ve found that just talking about my own concern unlocks the door. Bea

  4. You make me realize how very lucky I was in never having  had your problem.  Dan and I shared pretty much everything.. when things went well and sometimes when things did not.   Think it DID help.. maybe only as misery likes company?? and fortunately there really was really very little misery. Once when he was badly treated on retirement and once long ago when I was so sorry my father had to suffer my getting pregnant when so young and not yet married.Guess I have been oh so lucky!Vivian  

    1. Vivian, I well remember reading the letters you and Dan exchanged, published in your wonderful book, and thinking how lucky you were to have met someone so in sync with you. Luck, insight, some of each? I count myself very lucky as well, although the pathway was an arduous one in the early years. So pleased to hear from you.

  5. Bea,

    These days this column is especially relevant. Right now Ben and I have very different responses to our runway/suicidal grandson. I am the talker and Ben takes my hand.

    Thank you for your words.


    1. You and Ben have been in my thoughts. Is there anything more painful than a threat, from whatever source, to a young life? Having a loved one take your hand can speak a thousand words. Many a time I found that out. I am so pleased that you wrote. Bea

  6. Dear Bea,
    The cartoon you describe is a classic! My interpretation is that talking about “it” keeps the hairy monster behind the couch and not sitting between them. Still messy and unkempt, but not in the space between them.
    Thanks for your thoughts, as always.
    Susan Steinberg

  7. Bea, this was a very thoughtful article. I tend to lean to the “‘keep personal thoughts to myself” side, probably, as you said, because I grew up that way. I love to discuss current events with friends like you. Thank heaven for your thoughtfulness. When I encounter people with personal issues, I would rather listen than share my own issues–maybe because I don’t want to think about them too much. You always help me look at things a little differently.

  8. Carole,
    You have solved a mystery for me. Often, after we have spent some time together, in rethinking our conversation I sometimes find myself wondering how you felt about things. Not when discussing politics, of course, but if it has been something more personal. Now, I understand. But, I may now decide to ask the “second question”.

  9. Ahhhh. Thank you again. Did you know that Ed Koren and my brother Dick were Good friends? Love, Marian Sent from my iPhone


    1. Marian, I love hearing from you, my long lost friend. I now do remember that Sipress was a good friend of Dick’s, but had quite forgotten. I hope things go well with you. Love, bea

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