Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Over-Parsing

My girlfriend-of-3-months and I communicate by IM (chat) a lot. We also talk on the phone, of course. We're still learning each other's vocabulary. When I say "girlfriend," I mean one thing but she thinks another. When she says "serious relationship" she thinks one thing, I think another. We often find ourselves taking apart words and phrases, fussing over semantics. I call this the over-parsing problem.

A great example is just the phrase "in love." What does it mean? Does it mean an infatuation that keeps on growing? Does it imply a serious relationship, or a commitment of some kind? Is it a phrase you should use (at all) in the first weeks of a relationship? Is there even such a thing as true love? Etc. etc.

Here's the solution -- the way to get past the over-parsing nonsense. IMHO.

Focus on actions rather than words. Make sure your partner understands that you don't really care about vocabulary -- you care about actions, deeds, behavior. Because let's face it, you really can't tell if someone is in love with you just by what comes out of their mouth. Mouths lie. Actions do not. You can tell, by certain patterns of behavior, whether someone is loyal or not loyal, needy of your attention or not needy, physically attracted to you or not, and so on.

I'll give you a quick example. My girl denies that she needs me. "I may want you," she always says, adamantly, "but I do not need you." Bear in mind this is coming from a recently (if two years ago can be called recently) divorced 30-year-old who is living alone and making a good (very good) living working for a large enterprise software company.

Her behavior tells a different story. We talk either via IM or phone every day and have done so for 3 months. (We live 500 miles apart.) It is rare that we don't spend at least two hours (minimum) per day talking or chatting. In fact I would say the average is more like 3 hours a day. Now here's the interesting part. If I don't get in touch with her within a given 18 hour span, she contacts me, always, even if we've had a bad fight the night before. And (here's the telling part), she says every day, sometimes several times during the day and at night, that she misses me. "If I don't talk to you, I really start to miss you," she explains.

So the point, though, is: She would never say "I need you to talk to every day." But the fact is -- her behavior says -- that she does need to talk to me, regularly, frequently, without fail, every day, or else she starts to pine for me. That, to me, is need, not want.

But I long ago learned not to parse phrases like "I need you" versus "I want you," because eventually the other person's actions will make it clear what the score really is.

Words are cheap. They're overloaded and squishy. Don't rely on them. My advice? Observe your partner's behavior. It will unfailingly tell you what you need to know.

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