What Do You Mean When You Say, “We Can’t Communicate?”
“My spouse and I just can’t seem to communicate.” What does that sentence mean to you when you hear it—or when you say it? There seem to be numerous possibilities, but until you pinpoint the problem, you’ll never solve it. For starters, here are three possibilities to help with miscommunication.
1. I (or my spouse) cannot put our thoughts or feelings into words.
One of the most frustrating experiences for us was in the 1990s when our three girls were teenagers. The new fashion trend for girls was skorts—a pair of shorts that looked like a short skirt. Our girls thought they were cute. I thought they were cute. Bob hated them. But why? He saw the problem but couldn’t put it into words that made sense to me. We went around and around. I was trying to be as supportive and respectful in asking questions and drawing Bob out. All the while, he was trying to put his finger on the problem and struggling to express it. We were both trying to communicate and simply couldn’t. It took about two months, but Bob finally articulated the problem as he saw it from his male perspective: “It looks like the girls are wearing a mini-skirt, but they are sitting and bending like they would in shorts. It’s a tease.” Ohhhhhh! Now I understood. But it took quite a while and both of us had to work at it.
2. I think I’m being quite clear, but my spouse keeps coming up with a different meaning for my words.
“You think you’re so clear, but you’re not.” This is one of the most common things Bob says to me. I still think I’m clear. I just expect him to derive more meaning from context than he does. Like when I tell him, “I’m going walking with Lisa.”
“Which Lisa? You know at least three Lisas.”
Well, the Lisa I always go walking with, of course. (I do not speak this part aloud.)
How do you fix this problem? My proposal was for Bob to do a better job of considering the context. His proposal was for me to use last names—or spend more time clarifying my exact meaning. It seems like a lot of extra work, but if I want my husband to understand me, I guess I should work on my end of the problem as well.
While frustrating, this type of lack of communication does not usually result in an emotional blow-up. It just requires both partners to genuinely desire to understand and be understood by their mate—and then to work on it.
3. My spouse is not listening at a deep enough level.
Often, we don’t understand what our spouse is saying because we come at the subject from a different angle. In the first example above, Bob was looking at the problem through his distinctly male lens while I was viewing it through my female lens. When it comes to matters of clarity as in the second example, Bob looks through his attorney lens. He wants the message exact—precise. My English teacher lens says, “Use your imagination already!”
A more difficult type of miscommunication occurs when one spouse unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly) steps on their partner’s wound from the past. Bob is a bottom line kind of guy. If I make a request, he only needs the request. He doesn’t need my explanation for making it. Early in our marriage, Bob had a gesture that meant, “Just give me the bottom line.” Growing up in a family where I felt no one wanted to listen to me, that really hurt my feelings. He wasn’t trying to be evil. He just did not understand the ramifications at that point. I’d see the gesture and shut down emotionally—leave the room—consider options for taking care of the problem myself. Harmonious give and take was not likely the rest of the day.
These are the miscommunication challenges that require speaking to your spouse’s heart—probably over time.
“Every time we get on this topic, you seem to run away from me. Is this a hard topic for you? What has happened that makes it so hard for you?”
“I think I’ve hurt your feelings, but I don’t know why. Can you tell me what you’re feeling?”
“May I give you permission to tell me if I’ve hurt you? I don’t ever want to hurt you.”
Good communication requires coming to grips with the problem so you can articulate it, stating the problem clearly, and understanding the intricacies of your spouse’s heart so you don’t tread on the tender spots.
For further help in learning to speak to your spouse at a deep level, check out Appendices B, C, and D of The Marriage Dance: Moving Together As One, on sale right now on Amazon. As we approach wedding season, consider this as a shower or wedding gift for the newlyweds in your life.
This post was originally published on our blog on March 28, 2018.