A Sigh Can Set Off a Conflict As Easily as the Words We Choose to Say

a bunch of darts stuck in a dart board
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

I’m learning a lot about myself from him. From looking at who I am through his eyes.

He has that kind of hypervigilance you only get after years of dating women who set traps. Who modify their behavior ever so slightly as a test, to see if you notice.

Like those silent bargains I’d make with God as a kid: “If you really exist, send me a sign.”

Except they’re thinking, If you really love me, you’ll pass my test. You’ll notice I’m huffy. Push past the first few times I tell you there’s nothing wrong when you ask. And if  you’re a real keeper — marriage material — you’ll read my mind and give me exactly what I want. With no hints.

Sushi, a back rub, flowers, whatever. She ain’t telling you.

But you gotta guess.

I’m so not that woman, although I’ve dated a few. And disappointed more than my fair share when I’d back slowly away from that game. I’d had enough of it from childhood, catering to my mother, volun-drafted to be her best friend whether I wanted to or not. No thank you.

I vowed to never be like that. I’ve told him that. But it doesn’t matter. He’s used to that kind of woman. And so he’s always on high alert for dangerous signs. Subtle shifts in mood.

So when I sigh, without even realizing that I’m doing so, he asks me, “What?”

“Huh?” I say back.

“You sighed.”

“Did I?” I say.

To me, it’s a blip on my radar. Something I didn’t even consciously register. But to him, it’s a warning sign. So he presses.

“What’s going on?”

I comb my mind for what I was thinking before. I suppose it was because he just said a series of things in quick succession that sounded negative. That I’m finally out of washer fluid. And he mentioned that he should probably detail my car again soon, both statements which probably imply that he thinks my car is dirty. And there was a heaviness to his voice when he talked about maybe doing it tomorrow, like he’d rather relax than do the chore. But feels stuck.

He’s been working so hard and hasn’t taken nearly as much fun time as he really should. I’ve been worried about his mental health lately. That he might burn out. That morning he’d been in a panic looking for our concert tickets, before I’d found them wedged under our alarm clock (probably put there for safe keeping as he took off his pants before bed). I’d only had to look for a few minutes once he asked me to help in the search (since my superpower is finding misplaced things), but it had felt like much longer because he was so stressed. I hadn’t seen him so distraught over something so little in a long time. Taken all together, the pattern seemed worrisome.

And now we’re sitting in the car on the way to that concert, in thick traffic that isn’t playing well. The Sunday drivers and the rush hour set suddenly mixed into the same eight-lane highway, their styles at distinct odds with one another. I want tonight to go well, but I’m worried that he’s going to get into a dark place because he’s been pushing himself too hard, other people will do their normal level of inconsiderate behavior (in traffic, at the concert, etc.) and it’ll be too much for him. That the night will be stressful instead. For both of us.

I suppose that’s what I was thinking about when I sighed.

So I tell him. “Oh, I probably sighed because I’m worried you’re getting into negative fault-finding mode.”

“Fucking really?” he says. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“You pried,” I say. “Why give me grief about the answer when you asked?”

“I didn’t pry,” he says.

“What was that then?” I say.

“I asked you why you sighed,” he says.

“And I told you the truth,” I say. “But only because you asked. I wasn’t trying to communicate with you when I sighed. It was just a reaction.”

“Sighs are vocalizations,” he says. “They’re communications.”

“I don’t mean them that way,” I say. “They just happen.”

But he’s in no mood to listen to me now. His body has visibly stiffened. And it’s terrible timing anyway. Traffic is even thicker, and more people are misbehaving. Wandering into other people’s lanes. Cutting it close. Not using their blinkers.

Later, when it’s thinned out, I say, “I probably shouldn’t have said that. Because if you aren’t in a bad mood, it seems unfair to worry that you are going to be. And if you are in a negative place, then you’ll just go negative with that. I just didn’t know how to handle it. How to answer you honestly in a way that wouldn’t stir up trouble.”

He doesn’t say anything in response, but he does seem less irritated at that last statement. Maybe it’s my imagination, but he even seems a little happy that I said it. Vindicated somehow. But it’s hard to be sure. I’ve always been worse at reading his facial expressions than he’s been at reading mine since my face is much more emotionally reactive, an imbalance that is often stressful on my end of things, as I both end up feeling like I don’t have much mental privacy and don’t really know what’s going on inside his head. Like I’m playing a game where my cards are facing up and his are facing down.

The last thing I want to do is play games. But here we are. His stress response is avoidance. Mine is implosion and confronting things head on. In times of conflict, there’s usually no way for us both to get what we want, at least not right away, and my method is invasive and boundary crossing when nonconsensual. Not to mention it has a way of turning the conversation into a powder keg when the other person’s not on the same page. So I typically pull back and give him silence, even though it sometimes takes me a few sentences more than he’d prefer for me to get there. To complete silence.

This time I get the picture pretty quickly though. I stay silent for him as he drives us onward.

I pull out my phone and start researching sighing as a form of communication. Because I can’t help but feel that if we’re having this problem, then other people might as well. I know I’ve run into it with folks in the past — people hearing a sigh and thinking I’m trying to express something with it, when I’m not even aware that I even did it until they point it out and start asking why I did it. And maybe it’s something I should write about.

Plus, getting absorbed in something nerdy is the best way I’ve found to make staying silent for a person who seems upset with me not feel like a punishment.

The Person Who Sighs and the Person Who Hears It Have Quite Different Interpretations

As it turns out, there have been studies on this, and this difference between how he perceives my sighs and how I perceive them (or don’t) is incredibly normal. For example, in a study by Teigen:

  • It was found that a sigh does typically signify a negative mood (for example, disappointment, frustration, boredom, or wistfulness).
  • Sighs happen just as often in public and private, which points at sighing being more of a subconscious reaction and not intentional communication that’s meant to convey a purpose.
  • Despite this, people mostly interpret other people’s sighs as intentional communication — one that conveys a negative emotion, most often sadness.
  • However, people most often interpret their own sighs not as sadness but as frustration. Well, if they register them. In the study, a full 77% of participants sighed when working on a complex puzzle, but most of those who did sigh denied that they had when asked.

So sighs are a form of nonverbal communication. And people who are sighing are largely unaware that they are doing it. But other people often (wrongly) think they’re sighing on purpose to tell them something indirectly.

I mean, sure, there are people who sigh dramatically as a big passive-aggressive show of emotion, intended to manipulate or shame the person they’re talking to. It does happen. But it’s far from the norm. And there are plenty of harmless unintentional sighs that are essentially a person’s subconscious emotions spilling out into the open air.

When the Beginning of Frustration Is Also Its End

If it’s nonverbal communication, then to me it’s really freaking unhelpful communication. Because I don’t really want anything from the other person when I’m sighing. And the sighing itself makes me feel better. The beginning of my frustration is also its end…unless the sigh itself starts up a new, unfortunate conflict.

Interestingly, I found in my reading that this phenomenon, too, is incredibly common. Another study found that sighing can actually provide a kind of reset for your body, both mentally and physically. The occasional sigh stretches out your lungs, in a way that varies your breathing patterns, improving respiratory efficiency, and creating a feeling of relief.

A Time and Place for Deflection

I look through a dozen more studies, diving through the rabbit hole. Somewhere along the way, I’m distracted by a radio commercial that mentions a theme park I’ve never heard of. I Google that, learn more about the old timey patriarchs of Pittsburgh (who had a hand in founding the thing).

By that time, I can see his body language has loosened up, so I start sharing the weird minutiae. He’s hesitant at first (I figure he’s emotionally exhausted), but piece by piece, we bond over trivia (a mutual love for us always), following the crumbs back to a place where it’s suddenly okay to talk about what happened earlier.

I even tell him about what I read about sighing. And that I’ll probably write a blog post about it. That I’m not sure what to do the next time he asks me why I sighed — because it seems like the sigh actually fixes the problem he’s sensing. And talking about it with him only creates a secondary problem that isn’t there.

“I don’t want to lie to you when you ask, but it really isn’t productive.”

It’s probably best to just change the subject, he advises. We talk about deflection tactics. I decide on, “Oh, nothing.” or “I must just be tired.”

And as I do, it occurs to me that I’ve heard similar said by people in the past when they’ve sighed — and I can tell that they aren’t exactly true statements. Or at least that there’s something else that preceded them that they aren’t sharing.

At the time I was incredibly frustrated whenever that happened, but now I’m maybe starting to get why they did that. Why they deflected. And I feel bad now, in hindsight, for prying when the roles were reversed.

I don’t tell him this. Because we’ve moved on to happier subjects. And I have a plan for moving forward and have learned something interesting about myself in the process (that I have a stress coping response I was never really aware of).

The night turns out to be lovely. We have a great time at the concert.

*

Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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1 Comment

  1. Sighs are something I’m on edge about. Growing up and watching for emotional traps from the parents, sigh were a big one. Sighs of frustration often meant something was uncomfortable and something was about to happen, or that we as kids, were supposed to know to do something and read someone’s mind.

    If we asked about it, we’d wind up getting a similar “Oh nothing” or some other verbal dismissal and then would come the louder more passive-aggressive sighing. Sometimes there was the “Oh, I’m going to not say anything any more, now that you’re getting upset” and then nothing but sighing.

    Other times, there would be sighs whenever any of us did anything. More often than not, it was directed at my father who drive poorly, or do poor work when asked not to do something. My dad’s a crappy driver. The kind that can only speed up and hit the brakes for example, rather than taking the foot off the gas and coasting towards the stopped cars at a light. So after each slam on the brakes, my mom would make a big sigh. And it’d just continue to get worse until the fighting started, then the sullen silences and the sighs.

    In that, I’ve learned avoidance since to bring it up caused more trouble and more frustration and family fighting. It was/is my childhood and current survival towards my parents.

    Side note, was that I was repeatedly told that women are like that and you’ll need to learn to read what they want by my mother. That asking what is wrong won’t give us an answer and that we had to watch and find out why. And that women and other people too, test.

    There are other sighs of course. Sadness, especially when leaving a favorite place. Or sighing after being exhausted after a long day at work. Maybe sighing after some fun exertion too.

    I know that I sigh when I’m anxious, usually in a large crowd and that it means it’s time to find a place to slow my heartrate and take some deep breaths. I sigh after “surfacing” from concentration. If I sigh while I do so, I’ve not yet been told.

    I’m hypervigilant as well due to my upbringing and the facial expression with the sigh will determine if it’s something I should ask about, or something I should run away from.

    When fairly sure it’s about something that’s not me, it’s easier to deal with. I work in tech support so when a friend or coworker sighs, it’s easier to respond with “Rough call?” or “Coding breaktime?” since highly focused people seem to forget to take deep breaths, such as when programming.

    But… for family and close people, if I’m the only one in the vicinity and nothing else is happening, a sigh is a warning and is very much non-verbal communication. It may or may not be related to me, but I need to find out so I don’t do something “wrong”. Walking on eggshells. Deflection makes it worse for me because then it’s a signal that something really is wrong but I’m not being told.

    Passive aggressive sighing is my “normal” so to hear that it’s not that common comes to me as a surprise, but as another survival tool from childhood and constant reinforcement, I think it will be a hard one to change.

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