Ask your partner: “How often do you deliberately send me ambiguous messages?”
If you have a good relationship, their answer will be “rarely if ever.” Some people may interpret humor or banter as a type of ambiguous message and answer differently.
To control for that ask your partner: “How often do you deliberately send me ambiguous messages that could reasonably be interpreted in a negative or unpleasant way?”
I hope that your partner will answer “very rarely, if ever.” If they don’t, maybe you two should pay more attention to the messages you are sending each other.
Let’s say that your partner answered “very rarely, if ever” to both questions, and especially the second one.
Now ask yourself: “How often do you receive messages from your partner that are ambiguous and could reasonably be interpreted in a negative or unpleasant way?” Or, more to the point: “How often do you receive ambiguous messages from your partner and interpret them in a negative or unpleasant way?”
You have to be honest with yourself and a good observer of your own quiet mind to answer that question accurately, truthfully. I bet most people are burdened with a fairly large group of ambiguous messages from their partner that they have interpreted in a negative or unpleasant way. You may not recall the actual message, but you will recall the interpretation.
Compare your feelings about those interpretations with your partner’s answers to the first two questions above. They told you that they “rarely, if ever” send you ambiguous messages that could reasonably be interpreted in a negative or unpleasant way.
And yet your mind holds many such interpretations. Either your partner is lying or you are doing too much misinterpreting.
Now turn the tables and take them through the same line of thought. I am quite sure that if they are honest, they will confess that they, too, are burdened with a fairly large group of ambiguous messages from you that they have interpreted in a negative or unpleasant way.
If you two have a good relationship, you should be able to get to this point, but even if you can’t get there with your partner, you as an individual, may be able to get there alone.
Now what do you do? If both partners see the problem, it’s easier to fix. If only one partner sees the problem, the fix is more difficult but still eminently doable.
What is the fix? Why do we have a problem like this?
The reason we have this problem is we do not pay enough attention to the minute bits of information that make-up all communicative acts. The fix for this problem is to pay attention to those minute bits of information.
How do you do that?
To answer, first let’s determine what we mean by a minute bit. Definition: A minute bit of communicative information in this context means the smallest discernible unit of psychological communication. Let’s call these units “psychological morphemes.” (In linguistics, a “morpheme” is the smallest semantic unit of language.)
A psychological morpheme is the smallest unit of communication between two or more people that carries an emotional charge, or that leads to an emotional or psychological interpretation. It is the smallest unit that can be interpreted by the hearer as either “positive,” “negative,” or “neutral.”
These units move between people very quickly. Within just a few seconds a psychological morpheme can move out from one partner, generate a new morpheme in the other partner, and get shot right back for a third interpretation. This is the primary origin of the vague and unreliable underbelly of so many interpersonal relations. If this underbelly is not addressed, it will grow and cause partners to suffer. The underbelly is the result of misinterpreted psychological morphemes, probably a great many of them. They tend to grow quickly and compound if they are not addressed.
How do you address them? How do you fix the problem?
The way you fix the problem is both partners must agree to pay close attention to all psychological morphemes. Both must agree to pay close attention to very small units of communication, units that are measured in seconds. If you hear something your partner said and notice that your mind is interpreting it as unpleasant, negative, or ambiguous, you must ask them immediately for clarification. If you wait, the psychological morpheme will lodge in your brain and you may not be able to remove it later. Sometimes you can, but don’t count on it. Ask immediately.
It is of great importance that both partners understand this and make a prior agreement to allow each other to ask as often as they like. Both partners must also make a prior agreement to be honest about what they meant. Once you get used to it, you will find this practice to be very beneficial and a much better way to talk as it allows you to take up a great many new subjects that will touch both of you deeply. More information on this technique can be found on our How to do FIML page and elsewhere on this site. This practice greatly supports Buddhist practice.