Are you communicating in an unclear way so that your spouse really doesn’t understand you?
If your spouse is doing something (or not doing something) and that bothers you, your first step should be to make a clear request. While a complaint is saying you don’t want, a request saying what you do want. Complaints are fuzzy communication because they don’t tell give enough information. He or she has to guess. Sometimes that may be obvious, like when you say, “You left the light on in the bathroom again,” and other times it might be vague, ”You never take me anywhere to do anything.” Go where? To do what? Just because it’s clear to you doesn’t mean it’s clear to your spouse.
A Fuzzy Request is Not Much Better than a Complaint
Let’s suppose your spouse is staying up using the computer each night instead of going to bed with you and it bothers you. Here are two poor ways of talking about that:
Complaining: “You always want to spend time with the computer instead of sleeping with me.”
Making a Fuzzy Request: “John, I wish we could sleep together like we used to.”
The complaint is downright negative and will elicit a defensive response, if any. John is not going to just say it was very inconsiderate of him and he will change immediately. If you tend to complain, predict to yourself how your spouse is likely to respond to your complaint. If you are sure it is going to be negative, then find another way. Don’t say things just to provoke your spouse.
The request is fuzzy because John would have to guess what you really mean. Does “wishing” it mean that you realize that you can’t, and that’s too bad? Does “like we used to” mean having sex every night like when you were first married? Does it mean you sleep on the left side of the bed and your spouse on the right? Or something else? In my coaching work, I observe fuzzy communication being part of the problem in every relationship.
Let’s look at how you could express the same desire in a clear way:
Clear communication: “John, I want you to go to bed at the same time as me every night.”
This communication is clear and it is neither a demand, nor a complaint. What seems to surprise my clients the most is that often their partner will simply agree with them and do what they want. Here are some more examples of fuzzy and clear communication.
“I wish you would do something with your dirty clothes.”
“I want you to put your dirty clothes in the hamper at the time you take them off.”
“I wish you would be more careful about how you use the credit cards.”
“I want us to make a budget and to set a limit on how much we can charge on the credit cards.”
The idea is that if you communicate clearly, your spouse will have a fair chance of being able to give you what you want.
If you are thinking, “I shouldn’t have to ask,” then likely you are out of touch with reality. If your spouse is not doing something, then you do have to ask. If you don’t like to ask, that is an issue for you to work on. We need to be able to ask for what we want and not expect our spouse to just guess what we want. Until your spouse refuses your clear request, you will hear him or her complain about your assumptions and your expectations that he or she be a mind reader. If you already hear such complaints, then take it as sign that you are not communicating clearly enough.
“But, what if my spouse doesn’t do what I request?”
Asking doesn’t obligate your spouse to do anything. Saying what you want also doesn’t obligate your spouse. It is informing your spouse of what you want. If he or she disagrees or refuses, then any blame for that will rest on him or her rather than on your failure to communicate. That’s a good start. After that, you can decide if it is something that you can let go, or something that you need to make another plan to deal with.
“The only other way I know how to deal with such disagreement is by fighting about it or giving up on it.”
Fighting will only lead to greater disconnection between you and your spouse, even if you get resentful compliance. In the example above, would you really want your husband going to bed with you if he was going to bed with resentment? That’s what would happen if you fought about it and could somehow “win.” On the other hand, giving in might be ok if your spouse is making up for it elsewhere. Problems occur when either you or your spouse feel like you are giving too much and getting too little. That would create distance and resentment. Make sure you are giving your spouse plenty of love and attention before you make it clear to your spouse what you want. Otherwise, you are likely to get rejection. If you already give plenty of love and attention, but your spouse does not care, or does not want to hear what you want, giving more love and attention is not the answer. Connecting and earning respect is.
Tell Your Spouse that Your Wants are Not Commands
Some spouses react think if you say what you want, they have an obligation to do it. They may then give you what you want and secretly resent it, or create conflict with passive, or passive-aggressive behaviors. Tell your spouse directly that sometimes you will say what you want, but that your spouse has no obligation to do it. When you remove the obligation to do what each other wants, then you open up the door to better communication. It’s natural that your spouse is going to want some things that you don’t and vice versa. We don’t need to judge our spouse by saying it’s sick, stupid, ridiculous, or any other judgment. Better to say something like, “It might add a whole new dimension to our life, but I’m not willing to try it.” My point is, that when you say “no” to each other, you can still do it in a non-rejecting way. We need to love the people we love.
Some Requests are Hard Because Our Spouse’s Have Become Sensitized to the Issue
Because of recurrent conflicts, people can become sensitive to the mere mention of anything related to that subject. For example, if you have often fought about money, merely asking how much something cost could cause your spouse to overreact. What can happen is that couples avoid talking about more and more topics until they have little left to say to each other. If this is happening with you, you may enjoy my book, Connecting Through “Yes!” which will give you a positive way to talk with your spouse about even the most difficult subjects (affairs, money, parenting, etc.). If your relationship is getting to the point where all you get is rejection when you talk, more serious help will be needed. Once you can’t talk to each other nicely anymore, the love will vanish. What we say to our spouses helps to make or break the love in our marriages. So, pay attention to what you say and how you say it. Be the one to start changing the way you talk to your spouse. Do it right, and you can renew your marriage.