the “oh, by the way” method

It seems we express the most important things between the lines.  We write things off.  Shrug.  Then double back to add just one more thing.  Doctors have actually named it.  The doorknob phenomenon. You’ll sit through your physical exam never bringing up the real reason you’re there until the doctor has her hand on the doorknob to leave.  "Oh, by the way…" then you’ll admit that you’ve found a lump between your vagina and your ass that seems to be… black. "But," you’ll add, "it hasn’t bled since last night."  Why do we do this?  Leave what we most need to say to the last possible chance we have to say it?  Why are we so afraid, so embarrassed?   It’s cowardly and forces someone else to clean up your seemingly instantaneous mess.   

Even in my everyday, a household argument, I’ll address what’s going on, but I won’t address what’s going on.  It’s not until the fight has lost some steam that I’ll clue him in, usually in an elevated ineffective tone.  He does it too.  It’s piss-poor communication.  And it’s no wonder.  In the film, The Mirror Has Two Faces, Barbara Streisand’s character tells her husband, just as he’s taking a sip of coffee and just as she’s out the door, "By the way, would telling you now that I want sex tonight be enough of a warning?"  And of course, there’s the ever memorable, "I’m pregnant.  Please pass the turnips," from For Keeps?  Why is it that we save (read: hide) the most important (embarrassing or frightening) information for the last possible second?  Like ripping off a band-aide we think it will hurt less if we say it in one fast string with our eyes closed, giving the receiver of such news very little opportunity to respond.  Instead of approaching it head on, allotting enough time, we run through it quickly, hoping maybe they’ll miss a detail. We don’t sit down and devote our time to it because then it’s drama, it’s "a talk," and admitting that, ramping up for such an episode is in fact admitting something is wrong.  When it slips in, though, it’s a surprise, an afterthought, so its severity is lessened.  We give it less real-estate in our lives, that which probably matters to us most.  We "talk" about our relationships in text messages and IM conversations.  We distill our lives into half-eaten sentences and "Oh, by the way"s.  Without thought.  I want a more thoughtful life, an engaging one, filled with people and activities, and plans.  A life where we pick up the phone, even though texting is easier.  A life ends up meaning most in the sidelines, the things we never plan for, but our conversations don’t need to work that way.  Our needs shouldn’t be expressed as afterthought, out of fear or embarrassment.  Having wants and needs is a good thing.  We’re dead without them. And expressing them along with a wave of the hand, belittling them, tells people not to take them seriously… because we don’t.  And by the way, that’s pretty sad.



  1. Yes, well put.
    I am guilty of this .. from time to time. Although my partner's reactions have taught me that I can generally tell him anything – without a big blowup – I do still hedge at times … human nature to expect the worst? to place little value on our own thoughts, feelings, concerns, illnesses?

  2. I don't communicate that way, but I'm really big on effective communication. I do tend to sandwich bad news or critism between two good things though.

    I also try to never raise a problem without also offering up a suggestion to solve it.

    You asked why people do it – I think it's because they're considering not saying whatever it is at all, and then when they're about to lose their chance (as in, the person is walking away/doctor's hand is on the doorknob) they get a burst of courage and spit it out.

    FROM STEPHANIE: I'm pretty sure, in theory, everyone is really big on effective communication. The challenge isn't just being an effective communicator yourself, but also in helping others to communicate with you (providing a safe environment where they'll never feel judged). I have a hard time encouraging others to communicate better. If she blows up about tennis, and I need to later drag it out of her what's really going on, is it my fault? No, but it's still my problem because I need to deal with it.

    So is pulling an "oh by the way" simply a case of cowardice, only? Or do you think in some cases, the person himself isn't even aware of it until his initial concern was addressed and he realizes, he's still upset. Aha! Here's why! As if the initial expressed thought wasn't what was really going on. I think it's a bit of both.

    So now I guess my question is, what's the best way to deal with a poor communicator who keeps things bottled up and then vomits up a list of "it drives me crazy when you do this!" out of what appears to be nowhere?

  3. I knew I had found the right man for me when I suddenly stopped allowing my needs to pass in “last moment” conversation. I to this day can not express my deepest needs to my family and even my close friends unless it is at a moment when they can turn and run but with "him" I can. I can just come right out and say, we need some time so I can tell you exactly how I feel and what I want. I wonder if a wretched divorce from my first mate taught me this lesson or if I finally met someone who doesn't judge me and has allowed me the freedom to just be me.

  4. Oh SO true! I'm still sitting nodding in agreement. I'm guilty of this… more than I'd like to admit actually. Thanks for giving me something to think about! Others reflections tend to promote growth in me when I let it; and so often we spend our time looking at the other person, thinking they need to grow and change. Which surely they do… but then so do we huh. ;) Thanks for your thoughts!

  5. I totally agree, this kind of behavior is just "piss-poor" communication, though we all do it every day! It makes it easier to say the tough stuff out loud when you think no one is really paying it their full attention. It's sad really, because those tough things to say are usually the things that need talking about, with real-life interaction, not with an "oh, by the way…."

    And P.S. Is there really a black lump, or was that just used an example? Yikes!

  6. I LOVE that you've addressed this! "We "talk" about our relationships in text messages and IM conversations", sums up my life unfortunately, and I HATE that i've let it get to that point. Unfortunately most people leave the what needs to be said, either unsaid or it ends up being the "Oh by the way"'s sad actually! These "oh by the ways" are usually the most important things that need to be discussed so why we relegate them to just that..who knows, it sure doesn't make it any easier in the end.

  7. I think Farah hit the nail on the head with what she said in her post:

    "I think we leave a lot of things unsaid until the very last moment b/c until things are said out loud, we don't have to accept the reality of the issue. We can think, stress, worry, etc. about issues in our head, but until we hand them over to someone else, they aren't as real."

  8. I've never been able to strike a balance. With me it's either 'oh and by the way'…until the point is never made. Or an aggressive kind of tourettes where I just blurt every thing out without any preface.

  9. People try to make their life easy. So when you have something important to say, you fear, get overwhelmed by this awful feeling of backing off, you look serious and messed up, you just hate that you have to come through this, so you postpone until there's no tomorrow so you just spill it out in any way you can… It actually ends to be rather painless that "way". Plus I think the deal with the doctor is that you hope he'll find what's wrong without having the embarrassing moment of admitting something looks bad near your vagina.

  10. Bless you Stephanie. This is awesome. I know I am prone to bottle things up and then explode – a dear friend pointed it out and asked me, what can I do to help not make that happen? I realized I had a tendency to blow when I felt isolated – unheard – ignored. I had put myself in a corner by trying to meet all my own needs, my wants. What a lie. We need people and we shouldn't be ashamed to admit it.

    Two weeks ago I sent an email to all my friends telling them I was fasting from voicemail and text messaging. If I didn't reach them when I called I would just call back. I would have my phone on more too. I told them, flat out, I was tired of feeling isolated, talking to answering machines more than them. It's been a good start.

  11. My husband unloads his list (kindly, tho) because he generally is afraid if hurting my feelings OR knows I will turn it all around and make his fault. :) Either way, its a personality thing and don't consider it poor communication — everyone has a different way of confronting rough stuff.

  12. Piss-poor communication says it all. I need to get better at stating my needs. Thanks for the reminder.

  13. I think we leave a lot of things unsaid until the very last moment b/c until things are said out loud, we don't have to accept the reality of the issue. We can think, stress, worry, etc. about issues in our head, but until we hand them over to someone else, they aren't as real. For some reason, this topic makes me think about the book "The Giver." One person held the pain inside his head and heart so that no one else had to bear the burden. I guess this theory doesn't hold up to joyous issues b/c most of the time we are bursting to let those out.

  14. I have way too much to say, and my thoughts would take up your whole comments section, so I'll just say that I could relate to this post so much. Too much, really. So many of your posts lately are describing bits and pieces of my life. Keep 'em coming. Thanks!

  15. I've started communicating while we're lounging in bed. It just seems really safe to me, and he can't really get up on out of bed if he doesn't want to talk about the issue… hmph- maybe I should ask my man if this annoys him!

    I do find it the best environment for me to bring up something that's difficult to address.

  16. "By the way" is one of my favorites, but you're right about, "Having wants and needs is a good thing." Not only is it a good thing, but if it's easily and freely communicated as a couple, then that's nirvana.

  17. So, to answer your question about how to deal with the bottling and then purging, I can give some tips from my relationship with my husband of almost a year… I am the bottler/vomiter in the relationship, a trait which I inherited from watching my mother, the bottler, and my father, the vomiter.

    My husband LOVES to communicate freely and he is very intuitive, which sounds exactly like you. You can honestly tell when the slightest thing is wrong with him, can't you? Like you just get that "feeling" when things are a little "off"? It's not like he out-of-the-blue tells you things that you didn't know about deep down already, right? So, my husband can sense if I get quiet (even if we just spoke 10 minutes ago) and he will actually say something like, "Did I do something wrong?" or "Is everything ok?". Now, to a bottler/vomiter, that goes against all of my senses. I just want to keep it inside and *I'LL* choose when to let it out…But, over the last couple of years that we've lived together, I've learned to look at those times when he ASKS me (kindly and calmly, mind you) as an opportunity to speak my mind. It took me until about this year to really feel comfortable with this communication method (because I wanted to keep bottling/sulking), but now I rarely have a REASON to purge all of those things in a shouting match because we have already talked about whatever bothered me.

    So, I warn you, if you try to bring things up as you feel that "off" feeling with Phil, he might be put off initially…but don't give up…it *can* change over time…

    Good luck! The fact that you're thinking of this and trying to solve communication issues while you're still early in your life with Phil means you're halfway there!! :)


  18. Karen, I do the exact same thing and it irritates my fiance so much. He's finally figured out that's how I communicate, though, and it's gotten easier. I think I do it for the same reasons Stephanie described. It's hard to bring those things up so I either ignore it or avoid the issue for the day then when I'm in bed, thinking through my day, I start to obsess over it and get upset then feel like I have to talk about it before I can sleep. I'm big on not going to bed angry so obviously I push it to the very last minute. I am trying really hard to talk about things as they come to me, and it's tough!

  19. I was once guilty of doing this, but not anymore. In my current relationship, I've learned to state things when I need them and how I need them. I learned from past mistakes as well as failed relationships to speak up before it's too late. It feels great to do and I'm glad I learned to do it.

    As far as teaching others to communicate well with you, I guess ask and ask often. Practice. And maybe patience?

  20. I think quite simply that you should discuss things as they come up. Bringing things up in a calm and loving way does the relationship so much more than bottling and bursting open.

    Every marriage needs constant attention and adjustments. Best to be open about them in a good enviroment where both partners feel safe and not attacked. Neither partner could disagree. Just try to find the right time…

  21. Stephanie- I totally get where you are right now. This "Oh, by the way" thing you're writing about, I'm having difficulty expressing how I feel to two close friends of mine who I'm on the rocks with. If I even think to mention how I feel, it's in a "oh, come to think of it," or "by the way," and it's not fair, and when I do say IT, it's half-assed and not real. It's not right, it's stubborn, controlling, and manipulative, but it's based out of fear. Embarassment at showing how one feels, folding and revealing what we have to say, our poker face if you will.
    It comes down to in relationships, one always wants to win. That's what I think, I love and need to have the upperhand, to come out on top- the victor, the one in control. You're afraid what you feel is wrong, or what you feel doesn't matter, and then you conceal it. It's easier, and more satisfying to live without coming clean than to take that leap.

  22. In addition, you wait to the last moment because you're fucking scared. You're terrified you're going to get hurt. That fear, that fear consumes us and is our motivation in most of our actions… Effective communication is impossible unless that fear is gone.

  23. All I have to say is that your past two posts ring so true. It is amazing how you can write in your blog so much that your readers can relate to.

  24. A couple of thoughts on how to handle the por communicator:

    1. Take a look at Thich Nhat Hanh's book, "Creatng True Peace." There are very useful exercises on how to communicate in a more loving and less accusatory way. Things like, making an appointment to talk about something that's bothering you. And structuring the conversation so that it isn't all negative. I have followed this process with my boyfriend, and it has made a world of difference. We no longer observe it in as formal of a way, but it has changed how we talk to one another.

    2. Make rules about not bringing up every single grievance whenever you have an argument. My friend's mother-in-law is a marriage counselor and that's the best piece of advice she gave my friend, who has now been very happily married to this woman's son for 10 years, and is the mother of his three children. If the argument starts to stray, you can try saying, "that's now what we're talking about. If you'd like to talk about (whatever he's just thrown into the mix), we can find another time to talk about that later. Let's resolve the issue at hand first." It's important to acknowledge, of course, that they're feeling frustrated about something, but they shouldn't take every opening to dump every little frustration they have ever had towards you.

  25. Talk about hitting the nail on the head. I've found myself going in circles with several difficult situations lately and trying to find the perfect time to discuss them. I have, just last night, decided to no longer play the role of the 'cool' chic who acts as if everything is ok. I've come to realize that by keeping things inside and waiting for the explosion to happen, the only person I'm truly hurting is myself. If I don't let others know that I'm upset with them over something or that I can't for the life of me understand way they are making the decisions they are, the only way for things to change or for to have a better understanding of them as a person is to talk about it. The passive person that I was, is no more. Granted, the two conversations I need to have will be difficult. I have since decided that taking a couple of days to figure out my true feelings and not shooting from the hip are in my best interest. But, speaking up sooner than later, thinking things over and getting the balls to say what's on your mind before it's too late are important for any relationship.

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