While Will and I dated, I realized a lot of differences between us. He’s a boy. I’m a girl. He likes spicy food. I don’t. I like the theater. He doesn’t. He likes video games. I don’t. I like TV. He doesn’t.

There were a lot of differences regarding our interests. But we’ve also discovered a lot of differences in our behavior. We’ve had to investigate why we behave the way we do and through this, we’ve analyzed our family background and dynamics. The main aspect of our families that we have examined is communication.

I grew up behaving pretty well. I had one rebellious teenage year, but for the most part I don’t remember getting grounded, sitting in timeout, or having my privileges taken away. I remember getting yelled at by my parents, but from what I can recall, I never yelled back. (I confirmed this with my mom earlier this week.) I knew that I had either forgotten to do the dishes or I didn’t practice piano, so the yelling was warranted. I deserved to be scolded for failing to complete the task I was assigned. I didn’t need to defend myself because there was nothing to defend. I failed to meet their clear expectations of me and that was that. So, I would pout, cry, run up to my room, and slam the door. I would sit and sulk for a while. Then after I was done sulking, I would go downstairs and everything would be all better. I didn’t have to explain my actions or say “I’m sorry.” I didn’t have to ask for forgiveness. We just accepted what had happened and moved on.

Now for Will’s family:

He grew up where everyone was passionate and that passion was made known frequently. They are passionate about everything. Politics, religion, lifestyle, economy, money, and so on. I think they have an opinion about every subject. And they discuss these subjects often.

When we were dating, I had dinner with them often. Most of the time, these dinner conversations became shouting matches. Shouting matches are loud, but these were shouting matches in Chinese! So take me, a self-labeled American-Asian (I’m fourth-generation on my mom’s side!) whose Chinese comprehension was close to nil, sitting at my boyfriend’s family table, listening to four people raise their voices in a foreign language. Coming from my background where yelling meant someone was mad and you were in trouble, this “conversation” equated to “everyone is mad at everyone else!”

I was concerned for all of them – they must hate each other to be yelling this much; there is a lot of family tension going on here; why is everyone so mean? On several occasions I told Will that he should work on his family relationships. There was obviously something wrong here; my family never fought like this!

I’m not sure when I realized the next thing I’m going to write, but it has helped immensely in understanding Will and myself. Everyone did not grow up like me. I bet my sister and brother might even have slightly different versions of how we were raised. When you grow up, you don’t really need to think about how others are growing up. You don’t even have a reason to need to think about that. You grow up how you grow up and that’s that.

Dating someone who didn’t grow up in your family was an eye-opening experience. Since the Shaos lived locally, I was able to see first-hand their family dynamic. In their family, sharing your opinions is welcomed. And with that sharing, comes the passion. Raising your voice doesn’t automatically mean you’re mad; it means you’re excited or strong-willed or feel like you’re right. With this culture of vocalizing your thoughts, also comes the vocalization of your feelings. Since you have had practice sharing your opinions on objective topics, you can also share your opinions on subjective matters. This is where raising your voice correlates to the emotions you feel. This I understand – if you’re upset or mad, raising your voice is warranted. But in my world, only parents could raise their voice. Seeing Will or his sister talk back and defend themselves – this was strange to me. But to them, they have had the opportunities and practice to voice their feelings – this was a part of their family.

It has been very helpful to see these differences in communication, and specifically, communication during conflict. One: raising your voice means different things for us. Two: responding to our parents comes in different forms.

Now that we’re married, we have to mesh these two styles together, develop a strategy that works for us, and implement that strategy when it is required.

Before we developed a strategy, this is usually how a conflict would play itself out.

Will is upset about something that I did or failed to do, proceeds to tell me about it. He may raise his voice to further emphasize how upset he is. I shut down. I think I have done something awful and deserve to be yelled at. I want to explain myself, but I don’t have the words to. I go to the bedroom, crying. Will is not sure what has happened. He’s still upset (and maybe now confused) and I’m mad at myself for failing at something. Nothing is resolved.

Can you see how we each came to the conflict with what we knew?

After several conflicts like this, we realized what was happening and how to approach them differently. This is how our conflicts play out now.

Will is upset about something that I did or failed to do, proceeds to tell me about it. He may raise his voice to further emphasize how upset he is. I tell him, “You’re yelling. I can’t hear you.” He repeats himself in a quieter decibel. I don’t know how to explain my emotions. Will asks me, “What are you feeling?” Hearing that he is giving me the opportunity to speak and wants to hear what I say, I find words to share with him. We are then able to talk about the issue, apologize when necessary, and forgive in response.

Realizing our styles of communication and developing a strategy that works for us has been an immense help in keeping our conflicts from escalating into chaos. We’ve been able to listen, acknowledge, and understand each other better. We don’t have it down perfectly yet (as evidenced in last night’s argument), but we’ll keep working at it.

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