"Do you want to go to my sister's?" she asks.
"Okay," he answers.
Afraid he's going along with the suggestion only because he thinks that's what she wants, she presses for more.
"Do you really want to go?"
He explodes. "You're driving me crazy! Why don't you make up your mind what you want?"
"Make up my mind? I haven't said what I want. I'm willing to do whatever you want!"
She sulks, wondering why he always gets angry at her for saying things she has never said. He turns away, angry that she can't just say what she means.
Why does pillow talk so often turn to pillow fight in intimate relationships?
"A basic difference in conversational styles leads to confrontation and misunderstanding," says Deborah Tannen, 40, whose own miscommunication with her husband, she says, eventually led to divorce. Now an associate professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, the author of That's Not What I Meant! How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Your Relations With Others (William Morrow, $12.95) contends that the differences in how we communicate with those we love are often at the root of disruptions to our relationships -- but are rarely recognized.
And because the medium is the culprit, she adds, no matter how hard we try to communicate honestly, misunderstandings mount.
To investigate differing conversational styles, Tannen recorded "hundreds of conversations," analyzed them, interpreted what was said, clarified that with the participants and reanalyzed them. What she found causing those conversational hitches, particularly those in an intimate relationship, are "cultural" differences between males and females, and an American reliance on the indirect message.
American men, she contends, are brought up to value independence and tend to be information-focused. American women are raised to be conscious of social involvements and tend to be meaning-focused. Beyond the actual words or absence of words are different expectations. "Girls have a best friend and they tell secrets," Tannen says. "And they expect their new partner in a close relationship to be a new and improved version of their best friend. Women make and maintain intimate relationships around this kind of talk.
"Men often have just the opposite interpretation of talking things out. They think the relationship isn't working if we have to keep talking things over. They don't look at talk as the barometer of the relationship; women do."
A woman, for example, might ask her husband, "How was your day?" Typically, he'll answer, "Fine." She will feel something is lacking in that answer and is likely to interpret it as something lacking in their relationship.
"If he even bothers to ask how her day was, she'll tell him all the details -- who called, what she did, who she talked to," says Tannen. "But he'll think he shouldn't have to ask. Men think: If you have something to tell, then tell it. It's a different definition about what is 'something to tell.' "
Robin Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, agrees: "For various reasons, women are more indirect and men are direct. You understand what other people say in terms of what you would've meant had you said the same thing.
"This is the trouble," adds Lakoff, 43, who 10 years ago published Language and Woman's Place (Harper and Row), a book on how women use and understand communication. "You see, if we knew what each other was up to, how each other communicates -- rather than succumbing to these misinterpetations and mislabeling someone as benign, aggressive, hiding something -- we could talk about it. But as tension develops, women tend to get more indirect and men get more direct. It goes from okay to bad to worse. Nobody realizes what happens."
At the heart of frustrating intimate talk, says Tannen, is indirectness -- those layers of meaning that offer "metamessages" beyond words.
"People would rather not say exactly what they mean because they're concerned about the effects of their words on the people they're talking to," says Tannen. While we pay lip service to honest talk, we don't usually want to appear domineering, imposing or insensitive. We'd rather give (or at least appear to give) the other person some choice in the matter being discussed.
Indirectness has other pluses. Esthetically, it can be more pleasing to be cryptic, subtle or funny than "to simply say what's on our minds," she says. It enables us to avoid hurting others' feelings unnecessarily. And making oneself understood without saying what we mean is part of developing rapport -- a special sort of communicating.
But it has a significant minus: misunderstanding.
"We are monitoring metamessages in what is said, how it is said, the tone of the voice, all the time," Tannen says. "We look for answers in our conversations. 'Do you love me enough?' 'Do you care for me?' We constantly have our antennae up.
"But we don't get our answers from what is said -- rather from what is behind the words. If you don't know this -- and very few of us consciously know this -- when you feel hurt, you have no reason to doubt that it is the other person who is hurting you."
What of the platitude, "If you love each other, you can work it out"? Tannen says that, unfortunately, isn't necessarily true: "The more you love each other, the more unrealistic your expectations of perfect understanding and the more painful the metamessage of misunderstanding."
Tannen compares indirectness to testing the water before jumping in. It's a way of balancing our needs with the needs of others. That, compounded by differences in conversational style, causes trouble in paradise. It's an occurrence, Tannen emphasizes, that is "natural and normal" and not a signal of something wrong in the relationship. And once recognized, it can be overcome.