#nofilter: how to be married to an external processor

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In my head are two long blog posts that I’m working on as followup for my post Confessions of an introverted wife (married to an extroverted husband). The aforementioned “Confessions” post brings in a good bit of daily traffic (thanks, Pinterest), but unfortunately was not my best bit of writing. The post was word-vomit-ish, one-sided, and didn’t really paint a whole picture. For this reason (and a bunch of comments from highly concerned individuals who fear for the state of my marriage), I plan to do two followup posts: 1) Survival skills for introverted spouses and 2) Mistakes I’ve made my first ten years of marriage. But, as a prelude to those posts, I feel it pertinent to devote a post to yet another aspect of personality and communication styles that continues to impact my marriage. That being “external processing.” Realizing that my husband was an external processor (and that I most certainly was not) has been a game changer for our marriage. I wish it hadn’t taken me ten years to figure this out.

So, what do I mean when I say “external processor”?

Introversion and extroversion have a lot of overlap between internal and external processing. The former personality styles, reflecting how you interact with people. Internal processing and external processing thinking styles, reflecting how you interact with information.

I’m totally NOT an expert and have simply used Google to try to understand this better. Here are some helpful resources I have found, just to get you started:

BETTER WAYS TO COMMUNICATE WITH EXTERNAL THINKERS AND INTERNAL THINKERS

Internal and External Thinkers

My unprofessional understanding is that a person’s processing or thinking style may not always line up with whether they are an extrovert or an introvert. However, those may overlap.

A person’s processing style really is simple as it sounds – internal processors keep things inside. External processors think outloud.

External processors are the blurters, the talkers, and the people in your life who could wear this:

An external processor doesn’t know what he (she) thinks until she talks about it. Therefore, they must express #allthewords and #allthethoughts verbally.

For my husband, this is how his external processing normally manifests:

Negative analytical observations

Not every external processor is going to be highly analytical, but mine is. So he doesn’t just analyze everything; he also talks through his analysis of everything – from the biggest possible decisions to the most mundane details of life. An external processor is quick to bring up the problems with something.

Example: A few years ago we had to rush out the door early so I could take him to work on time. I knew he loved tea so I made him a cup and poured it into a reusable Starbucks mug. I have a tendency to focus far too much on my performance as a wife, so for some reason I was expecting this act to earn me “wife of the year” award. Instead, we got into a fight because the first thing he did was talk about how the tea was too hot to drink and the cup was poorly designed as a travel mug because it was too hot to hold, really.

It had nothing to do with me or how good of a wife I was, but somehow, it felt like a punch to the gut. Two years later we still use those darn mugs because it turns out, it wasn’t as big of a deal as either of us made it out to be.

Positive analytical observations & suggestions

Russ is one to point out things that he likes when he sees them, primarily if we are in an unfamiliar environment. I shall explain further.

When we first got married, he tried to communicate to me things that he liked about style, fashion, clothing, hair, etc., by pointing out things that he liked when he saw them on other women. Like, “See that lady’s dress? I like xyz about it…maybe you could find a dress like that some time!” 

I viscerally reacted with fury and jealousy.

Some if it was just a matter of poor timing. (#nofilter) Rather than talk to me later – like when I was actually going clothes shopping – he would blurt out a like or a dislike the minute he saw something. I would react uber-personally – as though he was saying I was unattractive or that he was attracted to someone else. A fight would ensue as he would try to explain his reasons. It would normally go downhill from there.

He also makes comments such as these about home / yard decor, design, organization. He brings up things we could do differently or better with the boys or the house (such as using coupons at the grocery store or doing this or that educational thing with LB) or how we could organize or arrange things differently. He will often mention things for me to look into (such as seeing if Amazon prime is really worth it because they are going to raise the rates this year). His brain is running a constant analysis on every aspect of life and looking for ways to improve. When that running commentary becomes verbal, it can sometimes come across as a criticism of how we are currently doing life right now. It’s also hard is that he is trying to “help” in areas that are pretty much my domain (such as household management or finances). I begin to feel like he’s giving me a never-ending to-do list of things to do, look into, buy, fix, or change.

Upcoming decisions and purchases

When he was in Afghanistan, we got into a HUGE fight because he said he was going to buy a motorcycle when he got home. Had he said something like that five years later, I would have smiled, nodded, and listened to him yammer on about motorcycles for a few days and then watch him talk himself out of the decision within that time frame without me lifting a finger.

It’s what he does. He has #alltheideas. And he will spend days looking at Consumer Reports articles and Googling this, that, or the other about #alltheideas he has. Examples: backpacking the Appalachian trail, biking the 7 miles to work every day, switching his MOS from intelligence to joining the chaplaincy (when he was still enlisted), doing this or that to the yard or the house, taking an exotic trip to Rurutu, boycotting Google, buying a different rucksack, upgrading his gaming computer (again), ordering another set of epic boots, becoming a banjo player, getting a job as an airline steward after he retires, and the list goes on. (Yes, these are all real-life examples.)

While he researches, he verbalizes. He tells me all of the reasons why this, that, or the other thing would be amazing or incredible and how we would make it work. The struggle is in that he seems TOTALLY LEGIT in that THIS IS WHAT WE ARE GOING TO DO.

As a rookie wife, I would freak out OR start making plans. I was thinking about money, time, hassle, and stress levels. I would immediately jump in with my two cents only to end up in a fight over something that two days later he had given up on because it was a really dumb or impractical idea (like I knew).

“I have 7,000 new ideas every day. I think they are all great. I tell my wife about one. She hears it as, this is something Scott wants to do. The next day, I don’t even remember what I said, and she is busy planning the next steps in her mind. Frustration ensues.” – Scott Reyes

Now I have learned to shut up and give him a few days. Sometimes that means entertaining the kids at the park across from the bike store for an hour while he talks with all of the bike experts about what kind of bike he is going to buy because I know that once he really takes the time to think about the logistics of it, he isn’t actually going to buy a bike and ride his bike to work every day in the NC heat. (#truestory)

I used to think he lacked follow-through and commitment. Now I know he is just a dreamer that has to talk through his ideas ad-nauseum before he can realize if they are worth pursuing.

Also, because external processors do a lot of talking, sometimes, they say things without thinking and then easily move on. They might even COMPLETELY FORGET that they said this or that or had a certain idea. There are many times I’ve completely changed something or gotten upset over something that Russ because it seemed very important to him, only to find out later he didn’t even remember saying it.

Which is why I really relate to this! So You Married an External Processor

Taking a more hands-off, mouth-shut approach to his ideas helps me because I know that the longer he talks about something the more serious he is. If a year or two later he is STILL talking about something, I know that 1) he’s getting serious about it and 2) he’s put a LOT of thought into it, which means the likelihood of him making a poor decision is much smaller.

A good example of this was the whole banjo thing. He started talking about buying a banjo not long after we got married. It annoyed the crap out of me when we took the time on a date to stop at the banjo store for him to talk to the people there for what seemed like FOREVER.

Russ checking out banjos in 2009

But he was STILL talking about wanting to get a banjo four years later, I knew that he had put a lot of time and thought into this dream. If he felt like it was worth pursuing, then I would support it.

Banjo playin man Beauty in the Mess Edition 07.09.13 @beautifulinhistime.com

Beauty in the Mess Edition 08.18.13

Beauty in the Mess ~ Edition 10.02.13

Russ bought his banjo just after he got out of the military and we moved to North Carolina. Hindsight being as it is, I can see that he was struggling with identity, recovering from war and deployments, reintegrating into his family, and the emotional loss that is leaving the military behind. He needed a hobby and the banjo gave him that. He poured his heart and soul into the instrument for the better part of six months. He practiced til his fingers bled. He was so proud when he taught himself how to play the Star Spangled Banner. While he eventually did quit and sell his banjo, we both look back on that choice with no regrets. It was something he always wanted to do – that he NEEDED to try. It met a need and then we moved on.

I share this example because not every harebrained idea a dreamer has is a bad one. 

Feelings

Or should I say #allthefeelings. External processors sometimes have to talk through every iota of every emotion that they feel. They want to feel heard, loved, and understood. Sometimes, the timing sucks. Like, when I am letting him know that I am going to need an evening out to have coffee with a friend and it somehow turns into a conversation about the sorry state of his social life and how that makes him feel.

How to be married to an external processor: Introversion and extroversion have a lot of overlap between internal and external processing. The former personality styles, reflecting how you interact with people. Internal processing and external processing thinking styles, reflecting how you interact with information.

How to be married to an external processor:

(Using masculine pronouns here for ease of writing – adjust accordingly to apply to the external processor that YOU love, be it male or female.) 

Wait and see. Take a wait-and-see approach to ideas and future decisions. Just because he says he’s going to do something, doesn’t mean he will. He may just be externally processing (and may not even realize it).

Don’t squash or shut down his ideas, dreams, and feelings. Listen. Support. Ask open-ended questions and let him form conclusions as he processes.

Clarify and confirm. Clarify exactly what he needs or wants you to do, change, buy, etc. Ask if he is truly upset with you or a situation, or if he is just venting or talking. I have found that just by asking, “What do you want me to do about this?” has made a huge difference – because a lot of times, the answer is, “Nothing! I’m just talking!” 

Fight over the decisions that really matter – WHEN they matter (and not any sooner).

Advocate for your own quietness when you need it. Set boundaries. It’s okay to say, “Can we talk about this later?” or “I can’t process this with you right now.”

Encourage your external processor to develop friendships outside of your marriage. It can be a lot of work to be married to an external processor – share the load of listening if and when you can.

Try not to take things personally.

Don’t forget that your words, feelings, and ideas matter too. Don’t hold things in when YOU need to talk.

Additional Resources

Our Biggest Marriage Lesson

6 Marriage “Operating Systems”

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