Communicating clearly and directly what you want will promote understanding and lead to better communication in marriage
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 criticism is saying what you don’t want, a request is saying what you do want. Criticisms are fuzzy communication because they don’t tell give enough information. Your spouse needs to guess. Many times, instead of guessing, spouses immediately get defensive. As I write in my book on overcoming neediness, criticism is one of the eight deadly behaviors that lead to loss of love. Consider this criticism–“You left the light on in the bathroom again.” It is easy to guess that what you want is the light to be turned off in the bathroom each time it is used. But this criticism also conveys disapproval or condescension, which are damaging to your marriage. Many criticisms are vague, ”You never take me anywhere to do anything.” The disapproval and condescension are clear enough, but what is really wanted? Where are you wanting to go? What are you wanting to do? 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 criticism
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:
Criticizing: “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 criticism 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 criticize, predict to yourself how your spouse is likely to respond to your criticism. If you are sure it is going to be negative, then find another way. Don’t try to provoke your spouse into action.
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 he sleeps 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 partners 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.”
If you communicate clearly, your spouse will have a better 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 spouses 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. Our spouses are never going to do everything that we want. However, if we make a close relationship with our spouses, they will happily do more of what we want.
“The only way I know how to deal with my spouse disappointing me 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 okay if your spouse is making up for it elsewhere. For example, he or she may not go to bet with you, but might cuddle with you on the sofa before you go off to bed.
Avoiding resentment will also lead to better communication in marriage
Withholding love and attention can result in your spouse becoming resentful about doing what you want, regardless of how you communicate it. 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. The connection has already been lost in your relationship and must be rebuilt. That can be built as a couple or you can learn to work on it without your spouse with re-connections marriage coaching. Besides better communication in marriage, that will also help your spouse to be more attracted to you.
Tell your spouse that your wants are not commands
Some spouses think if you say something 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 in marriage. 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 talk lovingly to the people we want to love us. That is a nice way to create better communication in marriage.
Some requests are hard because our spouses have become sensitized to the issue
Recurrent conflict can prevent better communication in marriage. With recurrent conflict, 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 costs could cause your spouse to overreact. Recurrent conflict can sensitize couples to so many topics that they have little left to say to each other. If this is happening with you, I encourage you to get a copy of 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.). This will desensitize both of you to talking about anything so that you can talk more, and more positively, again. Once you can’t talk to each other nicely anymore, the love will vanish. How we say things 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.